Who won? No one

October 05, 2020 08:24
U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in their first 2020 presidential campaign debate. Photo: Reuters

Who won the first battle of words between Joe Biden and Donald Trump?

No one. Absolutely no one. Not Chris Wallace. Not the audience. Certainly not Americans. Not the world.

Perhaps the real winners are those who are keen on witnessing the demise of what had once been the world’s finest country, once an exemplary paragon of democracy – filled to the brim with what Trump terms “very fine people”. It’s tragic, but it’s also a poignant reminder that the end of democracy begins not with a “Bang!”, but a desperate, drawn-out cry for help, followed by an interpolation of pregnant pauses and cacophonous noises.

How is one to summarise the spectacle that had taken place on Tuesday evening?

Well, a relentless, frenzied bully preached from the pulpit his incoherent words – channeling most of his ferocity and venom at another, equally frail, but arguably far more competent elderly statesman. The latter sought desperately to beat the former at his own game, only to realise halfway through that there was little hope, and thus resorted to half-exasperated, half-strategic interruptions, such as “Will you shut up, Man?” Then came the moderator, wading in at the eleventh hour of verbal altercations, seeking – in vain – to break up the two jostling toddlers. Neither candidate walked out of the debate having convinced anyone from the other side. It was a vicious, embittered match – and a stalemate, at that.

Much ink has been spilled over who won, who had to gain, or why we ought to mourn over the sombering sight of two old, white men battling each other in front of another old, white man (I say this with all due respect to Biden and Wallace – both accomplished individuals in their respective fields). But I want to take a step back and ask, “Are we surprised?”

America today stands at the height of political divisiveness. From structural causes, such as the widening gap between the “Havers” and the “Have-Nots”, the growing disillusionment over the systemic racism underpinning police brutality in the country, to the country’s ominous economic stagnation and indebtedness, to – above all – the fact that America no longer held a distinctively apparent upper hand in international politics… these are all sources of much angst and uneasiness amongst Americans from all classes. Yet the past four years have only exacerbated these divides – from the administration’s slippage into discriminatory and oppressive policies towards migrants and persons of colour (somewhat reminiscent of actual autocracies around the world), to the blindingly obvious dereliction of duty over the COVID-19 crisis, to the current President’s inflammation of ethnic divides (best epitomised by Trump’s blatant refusal to condemn white supremacists), these are all apparent hallmarks of a democracy in decline. The Democrats could only repair so much – I have no question that they are far more sensible than the Republicans, that Biden is a better choice; yet given the zeitgeist, where prudent reason is sacrificed in exchange for the bluster and skullduggery championed by Trump; could we really expect the country’s opposition to step up to salvaging the federal government from the ranks of the Trump-dominated GOP?

Yet there is more. Trump thrives and bathes in the theatrics, the expressive catharsis, the overwhelming affect of his actions and speech. Biden could never “out-Trump” the original Trump, so to speak, for Trump would always excel in his subversiveness, his willingness to transgress norms and boundaries, and his ability to put on a show. I spoke with a few of my younger Hong Kong students after the debate (I coach debating), and they had unanimously agreed that Trump “put on a far better show”. Trump’s put-downs – concerning Biden’s attributes ranging from his purported weakness to his senility, from his being a member of the Establishment to his allegedly excessive cautiousness over COVID-19 – were memorable. The media thrived on it – they needed the attention, and they needed the fun in the spectacle. Biden, too, was roped unwittingly into the game. He sought to prove his strength, yet ended up vindicating Trump’s antics; he wanted to offer an alternative to Trump, yet succumbed to Trump’s meretricious rhetoric and mumble-jumbled rant.

Social media and the advent of new technology have numbed our senses and amplified our worst excesses. They have encouraged media outlets and politicians alike to favour sound-bites – short, plithy quips that can be parroted and transmitted across extensive chains and networks on social media, in order to make an apparently true but substantively erroneous point. Here I refer to a prescient article penned by Judd Legum on ThinkProgress in 2015, in which he interpreted Trump’s ascent through the lenses of a professional wrestling career (Trump had been a wrestler prior to throwing himself into the political ring): “In other words, wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result.”

Social media aren’t the sole culprit here – but their promulgation of short attention-spans, discouragement of detailed and elaborate fact-checking, and tendency to zoom in on particular moments are certainly partially to blame for transforming political debate from drawn-out, high-spirited verbal sparring (certainly imperfect, so let’s not over-romanticise it) into a circus show.

Above all, though, we should remember that men who project hyper-masculine, unbridled strength have traditionally excelled at times of crises. America today is in crisis – make no mistake here. From being the worst-afflicted country under the COVID-19 Pandemic, to being forced to reckon with its gradual decline relative to both the European Union and China, America is desperately in search of a leader, a meta-narrative to plug the vacuum left open by the past decades of events. Trump’s ascent four years ago wasn’t an accident, and shouldn’t really have, with benefit of hindsight, shocked us; it instead should be a chilling reminder, that there remains a significant portion of America’s population that the progressive, liberal Left has yet to win back. The worst move Biden could have made, and could make, is to fall for Trump’s game. If the Democrats are to learn one thing from the debate – it’s that Biden and his charisma work best when they are not targeted towards #45, or towards trying to make Biden look like Trump. It’s instead to offer an alternative vision of America, one that is both packed to the brim with the “strength” and clarity of a renewed moral beacon, yet also reminds us that America can and will indeed be better.

Democracy has never been so at risk of collapse over the past eighty years. We’ve weathered the Cold War, we’ve weathered the Global Financial Crisis. Now, we’re one debate into the three, with one of the candidates in self-isolation, and another at risk of having been exposed to the virus. Will America survive? Will democracy survive?

No one. No one knows.

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Assistant Professor, HKU