Nationally-televised presidential debates contribute to the primordial mythos of election season. Campaigns can be won or lost on live television. Winners emerge with timeless glory. Losers can be doomed to become no more than a walking shadow, strutting and fretting their hour upon the stage before being heard no more. The story of our American civilization is changed forever under the spotlights during these debates. Where would we be without them? We wouldn’t be the same. In a world with superdelegates, Citizens United and poorly conceived Hollywood reboots, presidential debates seem like a refreshing dose of democracy and popular appeal. As such, I usually look forward to them.
However, after watching the past two presidential debates, I have changed my mind. I no longer appreciate them. I am done with them. Over the course of the past 150 years, we have gone from the Lincoln-Douglas debates to this. We have gone from high-minded civic engagement to Bravo’s Real Housewives of Trump Tower: Debate Edition. We have gone from two highly-qualified candidates (one sweatier than the other) debating on black-and-white television in the Kennedy-Nixon Debate to The Donald defending his “locker room talk” and telling the nation that Clinton has “hate in her heart.” This is no longer a glorified, intellectual exercise in well-considered democratic governance. This is unacceptable. We have devolved to a state of affairs where the major party candidates cannot shake hands before debating each other. We have devolved to a state of affairs where one candidate threatens to imprison the other if elected. Who’s to blame? Perhaps all of us, for allowing our democracy to get to this point. However, one person is particularly guilty.
If the past two debates have shown anything (and they’ve shown an awful lot), they’ve shown that Trump is categorically unfit to be president. Trump’s egregious frequency of interrupting Clinton showed that he’s incapable of listening, perhaps one of the most paramount qualities of a leader. Trump’s lurking and physical posturing during the second debate showed that he derives his power from intimidation, something that should alarm voters. Trump’s lack of policy specifics showed that he refuses to educate himself on issues of critical national importance. Trump’s policy disagreements with Mike Pence, exhibited during the second debate, showed that he lacks the ability to establish internal cohesion in his campaign, much less the federal government. I could go on and on. Trump claims to be successful in life, but his debate performances have been anything but successful. He’s a fraud, but we knew this already.
In sum, Donald Trump has ruined presidential debates for me. Sure, if current polling is indicative of Election Day outcomes, Trump will be gone from the national stage soon enough. But “Trumpism” will persist, along with everything that comes with it. Facts will become increasingly irrelevant in national debates. Intimidation will become normalized. Anger will increasingly infect our democratic society. Most depressingly, presidential debates of the future will likely become even more oriented towards anger, emotion and intimidation. Trump made this acceptable, perhaps even normal. Now we are left to hope that someone smarter does not come along in 2020 or 2024 and exploit it even further.