As a student, I participated in “parliamentary debate,” which uses a format that differs in various respects from other kinds of competitive debate. No doubt the most significant difference is that the more popular format in American high schools and colleges uses a single topic for an entire academic year, whereas parliamentary debaters improvise based on constantly changing topics. There are also other, less important differences. For example, in parliamentary debate, heckling is permitted, indeed encouraged. Why? Partly it is an artifact of actual practice in Parliament in England, but also because a well-timed and good-natured heckle can both lighten the mood and make a telling point.
To be sure, heckling can be excessive. Yet at least in the 1980s, when I was a high school and collegiate debater, there were no rules governing how much heckling was too much. Judges might deduct points from an over-enthusiastic or (even worse!) unfunny heckler, but there really was no need for them to do so. Participants—young adults in their teens and early twenties—policed themselves. The norm of heckle-good-naturedly-but-not-excessively was understood as what lawyers call a standard, not a rule. Nonetheless, it worked because everyone shared a commitment to the enterprise and so abided the norm in good faith.
Don’t get me wrong. High school and college debaters were (and no doubt still are) extremely competitive. But we knew that simply shouting opponents down or insulting them was not good-natured heckling and worse, that if we lost the norm forbidding excessive or mean heckling, we would lose everything we valued about debate as well.
Avoiding False Equivalence
Last night confirmed what everyone who has been paying any attention for the last 44 months ought to already know: The President of the United States has much less respect for the norms of civil discourse than do the vast majority of adolescents and twenty-somethings. In an hour and a half that felt like an eternity and a half, President Trump constantly interrupted and shouted over former Vice President Biden.
To be sure, Biden occasionally responded in kind, calling Trump a “clown” and at one point even saying “will you shut up, man?” so that he could finish a sentence. But the headline writers who have described the first (God help us there will be two more!) 2020 Presidential debate as “chaotic” (NY Times) and “chaos” (CNN) are being grossly unfair to Biden in suggesting any kind of equivalence.
Consider an analogy. Suppose you are hiking on a trail in the woods when you inadvertently alarm a mother grizzly bear by crossing the path of her cubs. You feverishly try to remember your preparation. Do you climb a tree? Play dead? Try to scare the bear by waving your arms around? Whatever you do doesn’t work. The bear attacks; you run; the bear catches up; she mauls you and then leaves you for dead; luckily, you survive and your injuries will eventually heal. Would it be accurate to describe the encounter in the woods as a “chaotic” contest between you and the grizzly? In a sense, sure, but that would miss the big picture. A much more accurate description would be that you survived an attack by a wild animal.
Last night Joe Biden survived an attack by a wild animal.
I say that as a vegan who respects all animals. Perhaps Trump—as someone who suffers from either narcissistic personality disorder or psychopathy—would have no more motive to control himself than would a mama bear defending her cubs. Moderator Chris Wallace repeatedly and with increasing exasperation implored Trump to stop interrupting and abide by the time limits and other rules to which Trump and his campaign had agreed. Trump didn’t.
Sometimes Trump chooses to control himself. After all, he has managed to maintain his composure when sitting for the many depositions that lawsuits filed by and against him have required. Perhaps Trump’s bullying interruptions were a deliberate tactic to throw Biden off his game. If so, that would make Trump evil rather than sick. But whether sick or evil, last night Trump once again demonstrated his manifest unfitness for the office he holds.
Substance and Style
In focusing on Trump’s brutish behavior, I do not mean to ignore his two most outrageous substantive statements. Asked point-blank by Wallace whether he would condemn white supremacists, Trump started off well by saying “sure,” but then did not actually condemn them. In fact he did the opposite. Naming a white supremacist group, Trump said “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”
Perhaps by now one of Trump’s mouthpieces has somehow spun this statement as either a condemnation or a joke—despite the facts that Trump has no sense of humor and did not smile at all during the debate. In the moment it was obvious that Trump could not bring himself to actually condemn white supremacist violence. Indeed, he used the opportunity to pivot to his claim that most of the political violence in America comes from the left—an assertion contradicted by the (Trump-appointed) FBI Director, who recently testified that white supremacists pose the predominant threat of domestic terrorism.
Trump’s other extremely alarming statement was also a non-answer. When Wallace asked the candidates whether they would accept the outcome of the election, win or lose, Biden gave the answer that every other major-party candidate for President in the history of the country would have: of course he would. Trump, by contrast, repeated his baseless claims that voting by mail risks substantial fraud and refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power should he lose—an outcome his fragile ego appears incapable of contemplating.
Chilling as Trump’s continued dalliance with white supremacists and his undermining of free and fair elections were, his lowest moment was personal. As Biden was describing his deceased son Beau’s military service, Trump interrupted to disparage Biden’s surviving son Hunter, correctly stating that he was discharged from the Navy for cocaine use but falsely claiming that he was dishonorably discharged when the separation was administrative. The mischaracterization of the discharge is much less important than what was confirmed about Trump’s character in the short exchange.
Beau Biden died of cancer in 2015. His death greatly affected the former Vice President, as the death of a child would undoubtedly take an enormous emotional toll on any parent. A person with even a modicum of humanity—indeed, even an unfeeling lout with a rudimentary understanding of other humans and thus what is expected—would have sensed the obvious sorrow Joe Biden was expressing in discussing his departed son. Anyone else who has ever run for President for either party would have either expressed sympathy for Biden as a person or, if not, at least allowed him to finish his sentence. Not Trump. He heard his opponent mention a son and immediately went on the attack.
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The end of McCarthyism came on June 9, 1954, when lawyer Joseph Welch, hired by the Army to defend it against Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt, said this to the Wisconsin Republican who had just insinuated that one of Welch’s associates was a Communist: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”
It is premature to say that Trump’s despicable performance last night will effectively end his presidential career. But if Biden wins the election and Republicans in state legislatures, in the Senate, and on the Supreme Court do not conspire with Trump to end the American constitutional experiment, perhaps we will someday look back on the debate of September 29, 2020, as the moment when Americans finally realized that Trump has no sense of decency.