During this past week President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, took the stage for their first debate prior to the November 3rd election.
The pre-debate issues for each candidate were basic. Would Joe Biden be able to hang deaths from COVID-19 around Donald Trump’s neck? Would Donald Trump be able to parlay rumors about Joe Biden’s lack of mental acuity into questions about his fitness for office? Could Joe Biden press questions about Donald Trump’s character and temperament? Could Donald Trump convince voters that Joe Biden is a sock puppet controlled by the extreme left wing of his own party?
Some questions were answered, but many more were not because we were subjected to the worst of all possible outcomes: Debatus Interruptus.
Donald Trump interrupted Joe Biden. Joe Biden interrupted Donald Trump. Moderator Chris Wallace interrupted them both. Rather than hearing a reasoned discussion regarding policy, we watched a dog fight that featured loads of barking, snarling, and yelping—but surprisingly few actual bites. Neither candidate could get any traction because the back and forth was so exhausting. I watched, I listened, and I learned that watching three men talk over one another for ninety minutes is just about as pleasant as listening to three third graders stumble through a school saxophone recital.
However, what was both truly striking and sadly illuminating to me was the contempt both Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden hold for one another—and their opponent’s political allies. Any illusion of an America working together toward solving its problems was tossed on the trash heap. We have to finally recognize that, for a great many reasons upon which neither side can possibly agree with the other, we are today truly a two-nation nation.
To even attempt to label our divisions invites ideological and personal attack. Words signifying basic American ideals that in the past elicited little controversy—freedom, opportunity, equality—have now themselves become flash points for bitter and divisive partisan debate.
The middle ground between each faction of our country has been has become nearly impossible to maintain because it has been blasted away by the rhetorical assaults flying from both sides. Our families, our communities, our mass media, our workplaces, our structures of governance, our educational institutions, our daily conversations, and our sense of collective nationhood has been fractured by mutual incomprehension, mutual distrust, and mutual hatreds that are startling in both their scope and their depth.
What divides us is now far more obvious than what unites us. Even listening to Joe Biden’s futile attempts to present himself as a consensus candidate in the face of Donald Trump’s embrace of raw realpolitik spoke to their vastly differing ideas about the solutions to what ails our country today.
Joe Biden continues to presume—or at least pretend—that a harmony hug will do the trick; Mr. Trump obviously intends to crush his political opponents under his heel. Differences in style and substance aside, all we know for certain is that, when all the election results are finally tallied, half our nation is going to be gripped with an insane rage and the other half will be seized by an only slightly less insane rage—and our newest round of wild conspiracy theories will shortly thereafter take hold. Prepare for raw sewage disguised as discussion to be dumped on every doorstep on November 4th.
Some of our divisions are born of the very nature of the issues that divide us because splitting the difference simply isn’t an option.
Can you have half an abortion? Do you let half of your undocumented immigrants stay? Do you decide that half of America is damned by systemic racism and the other half is a land of unfettered opportunity? Can you burn down half of a building or have half of a peaceful protest?
Reasoned debate is further impeded by the personal and economic stresses brought on by the COVID-19 lockdowns and shutdowns that have driven rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, drug and alcohol use, hunger, homelessness, government indebtedness, domestic violence, street crime, urban unrest, and bankruptcies to a point of no return for many. To presume we can quickly recover from this unprecedented national trauma is delusional. The damage is deep and will be long-lasting.
Are we heading for a national crack-up? My heart desperately wants to say no, but my head is starting to say yes. I no longer see how it can be avoided.