Musings on the First Presidential Debate
Updated: Oct 28, 2020
On the night of September 29th, 2020 America was subjected to one of the most indecent, raucous, and shameful displays of public spitefulness, discord, and party-dogmatism in recent memory. It is no stretch to say that incumbent president Donald Trump acted as a petulant child, while Joe Biden demonstrated his senility and lack of substance. It seems that for the 77-year-old Biden, completing a sentence without error, losing his train of thought, or going off an irrelevant tangent is an impossibility. Trump on the other hand, is unable to address others with respect and decorum and both he and Biden—when pressed—are unable to present even basic concrete and tangible policy recommendations. The moderator, Chris Wallace, who is son of the late renowned media man, Mike Wallace, frequently interrupted, argued with, and goaded on the candidates to a point that the “debate” devolved into nothing less than a public mud-slinging spectacle between three grown men who acted more like children than men. ‘Tis the state of public “discourse” in America in 2020.
The late Neil Postman is rolling in his grave as he warned us that even forty years ago, politics had devolved to a state of “show business.” It is certain however, America’s politics have regressed even further as now a presidential debate is not altogether different than “reality” television. Many would blame Donald Trump entirely for this diminution of the public sphere—and for certain he is culpable for further eviscerating the facade of civility and seriousness that remained prior. What is missed in this analysis however, is what made (and continues to make) Trump appealing to a large swath of middle-America: Donald Trump does not mince words or cloak sinister intentions behind eloquent rhetoric. Far from a soothsayer, Donald Trump is brash if not uncouth, which is alluring to the average patriotic American voter who has grown tired of empty promises, lofty platitudes, and meaningless slogans, like Obama’s infamous “change” cliche.
“Change,” for instance, masqueraded as an inherent good thanks to Barack Obama’s ability to publicly propagandize. And yet, “change” or “progress” (and “make America great again) are hollow and empty in the sense that whatever is promised, it seems America continues its delineation from its venerable founding principles of localism, familial autonomy, natural law doctrine canonized via law and institutions, equality under the law, and so on. “Change” as a slogan implies beneficial change, but change is not a good in and of itself, but rather movement. “Progress,” another ambiguous “ideal,” implies movement in a desired direction, but trumpeters of progress seldom articulate what it is they do in fact desire to make us and therefore it is doubtful the rest of us would subscribe to the former’s perception of what is desirable. And thus to explicate what “change” and “progress” actually mean to the point of offering tangible and demonstrable proof of how progress is better than the status quo, is an almost impossible task that reduces the uniqueness of the individuals that make up the body politic, into a hegemonic and monolithic tribe. Even more damning, we must not forget that the insidious and anti-American institutions and policies like the Federal Reserve, wage tax, prohibition, the Eugenics Movement, etc. were once cornerstones of the “Progressive Platform”—which, by the way, happens to change more than the tropical winds.
Why should the “Green New Deal,” which Joe Biden’s website clearly endorses at least in principle, be any different? Why would packing the Supreme Court with “Progressive” judges (which Biden refused to denounce) in order to advance the “Progressive” agenda (of which many plans as they currently stand would be considered un-Constitutional), be to the benefit of a nation already divided and unable to agree on anything of substance? The average American has grown leery of governmental expansion into every sphere of the individual’s life and hence has materialized into a nationalist political movement. The fact of the matter is that today in America, government has unfortunately become like a shepherd overseeing its sheep. Its role is no longer to protect the natural rights of the individual, enforce contracts, provide for mutual defense, and regulate interstate and international commerce, but rather to do us or make us good. In all actuality, what person occupies the oval office should be of little consequence or concern to the average citizen, as policies enacted at the federal level should have little bearing on the nuances of local life.
Trump, as opposed to the career politician, promised (and to what degree he followed through on this we can debate) a return to American normalcy with strong industry, military, police, religious institutions, and so on. At the least, he pays lip service to the principles of the framers, even if his deeds say otherwise. The left on the other hand, increasingly detests American misdeeds in the world (of which there are a multitude for certain) and improperly ascribes causality to our original founding principles (and therefore wishes to reduce and remake us in their image). If America continues to stray from its intended trajectory as the world’s greatest project in ordered liberty and self-government, then surely further change would be akin to regression, not progress. It as the economist Thomas Sowell echoed, “fundamentally transforming (Barack Obama’s words) a relatively fair and just society, can only be for the worse.” And hence for this author, progress would be something like a return to our sacred founding principles and institutional structures enshrined in our nation’s foundational texts. If we fell short of our own lofty ideals before, true “progress” would consist of returning and reforming our ways to better actualize America’s own ideals to the greatest degree humanly possible.
Make no mistake: America needs much reform in the areas of health care, policing, military intervention, education; other maladies like governmental overreach via surveillance and an increasingly autocratic bureaucratic element must similarly be curbed. And yet, presidential debates such as the one that occurred on the night of September 29th, reduces serious issues that require much deliberation and honest discourse into mere demagoguery and tribalism. America is a nation divided that cannot even agree on its own principles and ideals. It seems to me that we are so polarized as a nation that one side rejects our foundational meta-principles, while the other blindly and zealously defends them to the point that they become quasi-apologists for a warped vision of America (i.e. as a world-dominating industrial superpower) that is antithetical to what the founding generation—whom they claim to adore and esteem—intended. Let us not forget that America was not supposed to go abroad “seeking monsters to destroy” and thus celebrations of nationalism and military dominance and fundamentally un-American. In the America that I believe in, industrial might and material well-being are ancillary to liberty and equality under the law: the only true equality.
And yet, because the people of this nation have been increasingly stripped of their ability to reason through machinations of the public school system (in addition to the increasing dominance of applied-science over multi-disciplinary liberal education), the modern citizen is unable to reason or deliberate about any serious matter. Hence it should come as no surprise that the presidential debates too, have devolved to the point of being nothing more than a verbal gladiatorial circus whereby one combatant faces off against another, in a two-hour-long barrage of vindictive and petulant verbal insults and slurs. The loser in such a case is not one side or the other, but rather the American experiment in ordered liberty and self-government which is all but extinct in 2020. The winners to the contrary, are those powerful multi-national corporatists and “masters of man (to use Adam Smith’s language),” who wish to subvert the well-being of the American republic for their own self-aggrandizement. Thus, empathy and open discourse, it would seem, are the only possibilities for true “progress,” which is no longer “forward” (because we have gone astray), but rather to cling to the essence and idea of America. Only then, may we discuss true reform and how best to proceed.