Why You Don’t Have to Feel Too Sick About What Happened Last Night

A counterintuitively optimistic take on the first presidential debate

Photos: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

I admit, it was a hard night. I’ve finally reached the point in my career where I get to live-tweet a debate on behalf of a publication. But now that I’ve gotten here, presidential politics has deteriorated beyond recognition. Tuesday night was a sick, depressing spectacle closer to late-stage Jerry Springer than civic discourse.

No one “won.” Not Trump, not Biden, and certainly not Americans.

But do not despair. The harder the president of the United States argues that democracy is over, that voting can’t work, that New York City is irreversibly failed, or that his thugs should “stand by” for civil war, the more certain I am that his reign is coming to an end. The emperor truly has no clothes.

Trump could have made a coherent and compelling argument for the power of the free market to solve our problems, the inalienable rights of individuals to express their autonomy, and the forced infantilization of leftist policies and the deep, neoliberal global elite profiting off it. But he didn’t do that, because he can’t connect real actions or positions with real results.

No, to understand our president’s great vulnerability — as well as the way it played out last night — you have to understand the magical tradition that informs his actions and beliefs. As a child, Donald Trump went to Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, where every Sunday he listened to the sermons of Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking. Trump came to believe that the world is manifest through our thoughts. Thinking makes it so. We create our own realities, and those of others, with our thoughts and with our words. It’s all based on the hypnosis of oneself and others.

That’s why Trump doesn’t talk about Covid deaths or losing the election. Admitting the possibility, focusing on the negative, speaking those words, could make it happen. Instead, he tries to manifest a cure by saying that the disease will simply “disappear.”

Last night, the reality Trump attempted to manifest was the one where he is the persecuted individual, fighting back against big government, big media, and the totalitarian Left. To conjure that, he treated moderator Chris Wallace — not Joe Biden — as the oppressive authority figure. Instead of reveling in the fact that he was playing a home game in a Fox debate, he acted as if he was on hostile turf.

Trump showed that the only way he can win a debate or an election is to convince us that there’s nothing we can do to stop him.

And it worked to some extent. Wallace eventually rose to the occasion, treating Trump as a hostile witness and playing into the fantasy that Trump is an outsider, uniquely capable of resisting the corrupt, institutional forces aligned against himself and all true red-blooded Americans.

Likewise, by consistently interrupting and heckling Biden, Trump may have been following the advice of speech pathologists on his team, who know that this is the worst thing one can do to someone like Biden who is prone to stuttering. But he may have also simply been trying to put himself where he is most comfortable: in front of the TV, heckling at what he sees. It’s as if Trump were so used to watching and yelling at the screen that he didn’t realize he was engaged with real people in real life. And if something is happening on the screen that he doesn’t like, he talks out loud as if his words can make it go away. It’s a form of conjuring.

Trump is a magical thinker, refusing to accept the reality of anything going on in the real world when he can wish it, heckle it, or gaslight it away. That’s what he was doing to us.

I think Trump’s plan was to perform a version of psyops on the American people. He wanted to demonstrate to us that the entire electoral process is — like CNN’s Dana Bash said in the aftermath — “a shitshow.” Productive debate is now impossible. If one of the two candidates doesn’t want to play along, they can break the process.

His success in manifesting chaos on stage gave some credence to his claim that America’s electoral system has become too chaotic to function. He said a fair election is not possible and that millions of votes would be cast illegally. In his words, incanted as if casting a spell, “it’s gonna be rigged, it’s gonna be a disaster, it’s gonna be a fraud the likes of which you’ve never seen. This is not going to end well.” The ease with which he could disrupt the integrity of the debate seemed to prove his point.

The psychological assault crescendoed when Trump was asked to condemn white supremacists. He used the opportunity to deliver orders to his imaginary Brown Shirts: “Proud Boys — stand back, and stand by.” Even if there are a few hundred men in pickups who consider themselves Trump’s modern-day vigilante storm troopers, these orders from the commander-in-chief were not meant for them. No, they were meant for us.

We are to imagine polling places surrounded by scary white guys waving MAGA flags and shotguns, intimidating Black people from voting at all. We are to believe — like Trump says — that getting a fair shake will be impossible. He wants to show that he can break the system we would use to remove him.

And from the looks of last night, American democracy has been irrevocably destroyed by this guy.

But that’s his purpose. That’s not reality; it’s just the reality he’s trying to create with his language and performance. He broke the TV show that’s been passing for political debate for the past few decades, but the TV is not the real world. It never was.

Last night, Donald Trump may have made it look like democracy was done for. But that was just an illusion. Democracy is, at its core, still working fine, thank you very much. Why trust him on the futility of voting when he’s lied about everything else? Trump hasn’t hacked democracy with these antics. He’s simply hacked television. He is conducting a form of mass media attack on the American public because he can no longer win an election. All he can do is demoralize us to the point where we believe an election is no longer possible — that he will suppress the vote, or simply refuse to leave.

Biden’s biggest job last night was not to win on the issues. That’s the easy part. His real job was to convince people that voting itself can still work, to counter Trump’s psychological warfare. The most important thing by far that Biden said last night wasn’t a jab at Trump’s policies; it was the mere affirmation of the political process:

He says he is not sure what he will accept, but it doesn’t matter. If we get the votes, it is all over. He will go. He cannot stay in power. It won’t happen. It won’t happen. Make sure you understand you have in your control to determine what the country will look like in the next four years.

So no, last night was not a debate. It was more of a competition over our perception of reality. Trump showed that the only way he can win a debate or an election is to convince us that there’s nothing we can do to stop him. That resistance is futile.

But according to Trump’s own logic, all we need to do to defeat him is to believe otherwise and vote. It’s that easy.

Author of Team Human, Present Shock, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Program or Be Programmed, and host of the Team Human podcast http://medium.com/team-human

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