Last night’s American presidential debate was not a debate. It was feudal court entertainment, in which a king lambasted his jester ruthlessly until the latter could no longer come up with a better trick.
Ideally, a debate involves a set of questions, some agreement on essential facts, and opposing arguments formulated in regard to those questions and facts. The American president, however, believes in neither objectivity nor the need to address arguments. Rather, like innumerable tyrants preceding him, Donald Trump’s only motive on stage was theatrical—to act out for his cult of personality.
In total, the statement, “not true,” was uttered 18 times last night, mostly by Biden as he rejected Trump’s falsehoods and truth-benders. This is absolutely absurd. If it is impossible to find consensus on basic political facts between the leaders of the American two-party system, then opinions and facts can no longer be differentiated in public discourse. This is not news, of course. Ever since Trump’s election, intellectuals and commentators have pointed out that we are entering an era of “post-truth politics.”
But “post-truth politics” isn’t exactly a novel phenomenon. Trump’s refusal to even attempt to rely on objective judgment is a hackneyed maneuver taken straight out of the authoritarian toolbox. Our classical Western politician, Julius Caesar, wrote of his Gallic exploits in the third-person, as if claiming to possess objective insight into his own decisions. In Julius Caesar’s Self-Created Image and Its Dramatic Afterlife, Miryana Dimitrova notes that Caesar’s “commentaries are a fusion of propaganda and self-promotion, at the heart of which lies the re-creation of Caesar as a full-bodied literary personality.” Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it? Trump’s own literary persona—his Twitter account of falsehoods and wild exaggerations—was fully embodied on the debate stage last night.
Arguably, Hannah Arendt’s most important text in guiding our interpretation of the contemporary state of political discourse is not, as sales would suggest, The Origins of Totalitarianism, but a short essay entitled, “Understanding and Politics,” in which she asserts that since “the beginning of this [20th] century, the growth of meaninglessness has been accompanied by loss of common sense.” The 21st century has certainly not corrected this societal pathology. In this vein, “words used for the purpose of fighting,” argues Arendt, “lose their quality of speech; they become cliches.” Therefore, she continues:
The extent to which cliches have crept into our everyday language and discussions may well indicate the degree to which we not only have deprived ourselves of the faculty of speech, but are ready to use more effective means of violence than bad books (and only bad books can be good weapons) with which to settle our arguments.
Arendt’s comments perfectly summarize last night’s electoral “debate,” because it was not an exchange of arguments but a colosseum slaughter, and Trump wiped the floor with his opponent. He interrupted him at every possible occasion; he yelled, insulted, used any opportunity to equivocate, and lied senselessly. He attacked Biden’s intelligence by pinning down the Democratic nominee’s very use of the word “smart.”
“Don’t ever use the word smart with me,” he exclaimed. “Don’t ever use that word.”
The event moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, could not contain Trump’s thespian performance. He pleaded endlessly for the president to obey the rules of the debate. The statement, “Please, let him speak, Mr. President,” became nearly automatic. An android could have performed the same task. Trump’s verbal manipulation of Wallace was symbolic of his dominion over what he deems to be “true”—without any kind of adjudicative power, he has taken full command of the narrative.
And he used his command to inflame the “debate” with Red Scare propaganda. When Wallace asked the president if he was “willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities,” Trump eventually answered, after much protest, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem this is a left-wing [sic].”
Of course, the onus of weaponizing propaganda was on Trump’s end. However, it matters little, as the debate stage functioned more as a court performance (as they often do, but this time it was of an unprecedented lucidity) than a political arena. The king’s jester, Joe Biden, was not only trampled but humiliated and embarrassed. He might have attempted to revert the dynamic by calling Trump a “clown,” but immediately corrected himself instead: “Excuse me, this person.”
Biden’s white-toothed veneer of political decency was not cohesive with his seemingly impulsive disparaging of Bernie Sanders, which played right into Trump’s attempt at dividing the opposition. When the king baited his fool, declaring, “Joe, you agreed with Bernie Sanders, who’s far left, on the manifesto, we call it. And that gives you socialized medicine,” Biden fell for the trick, responding, “I’m not going to listen to him. The fact of the matter is I beat Bernie Sanders.”
“He just lost the left,” Trump later retorted.
Joe Biden made a fool out of the Democratic Party and embarrassed part of Trump’s opposition. Nevertheless, jesters can, at least, tell the truth from lies. Indeed, in Shakespearean plays, it was often their role. But Biden did not do justice to his role; instead, he claimed that his duty was not “to call out [Trump]’s lies,” since “everybody knows he’s a liar.” But by doing this, he allowed the president to trample him and deviate the discussion at any and every opportunity toward trivial matters, such as Biden’s personal life and family. Nevertheless, as mentioned earlier, he even failed at following his own advice, and spent much of his time stating: “that’s not true.”
If Biden allows Trump to weaponize language like this, the American narrative will further shift toward a realm of “alternative facts” and enter a hellish realm of ambiguity, ripe for the plotting of totalitarian propaganda. Given the United States’ global power, allowing such an atmosphere to rule could have severe international repercussions. Let us not forget that the legal and moral ground to invade Iraq was premised on a set of lies.
If the American people care to preserve the little bit of democratic control they still possess over their institutions, they must vote for Biden en masse. After the ballot is cast, however, they must work to reignite the labour movement and radically transform the Democratic Party, because if the last “debate” was any indication of the party’s dedication to fighting authoritarianism, then the twilight of American democracy might come “not with a bang but with a whimper.”
Emmanuel Adams is a writer and journalist, as well as a community-involved activist and medical student at McGill University. Emmanuel holds a BA in English Literature and Philosophy from McGill University.