Don and Joe Play Talk Radio


This essay is part of a periodic series on the 2020 presidential election. Some earlier pieces can be found here.

Yes, I have heard this week’s presidential debate in Cleveland referred to as a shit show, clown car, clusterfuck, dumpster fire, and food fight, but now that I have heard, watched, and read the candidate exchanges three times—I know, Beam me up, Scotty…—I can say that it was something both less and more, although on many other levels this debate felt like a clinical trial between coke and Adderall.

The less you know. The more is that in the asides, insults, riffs, and streams of consciousness from the two candidates, we have a few more clues as to how each man conceives of the democracy or wishes to tear it down.

Part of the problem with events such as this one is that they are billed as “debates,” with the expectation that Lincoln and Douglas will show up on stage in frock coats and declaim, using a lot of Latin phrases, on the meaning of representative government, perhaps with allusions to Dred Scott or Lecompton.

In modern American politics, however, so-called debates were never modeled on those of Lincoln and Douglas, who—without the presence of a moderator—would speak for five hours and even take a break for dinner.

Since 1960, presidential campaign debates have been simulcast press conferences, in which moderators (from the obsequious Washington press corps) pose questions and set time limits for the scripted answers.

In general, the debate winner has been the candidate who can most effectively recite the best pre-programmed lines (“There you go again….Where’s the beef?…Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy…”).

Technically speaking, there’s never a lot of debating that takes place in these forums, as candidates cannot really develop arguments or pose their own questions (“Sir, speak to your position on the Bulgarian atrocities….”).

In the Trump era, however, demanding that the president answer formal questions is asking a lot, which is why, on his own accord, he’s transformed the debate medium into talk radio, in which the host can hang up on callers and riff on Hunter Biden (“He got three and a half million dollars from Moscow…”).

Maybe this most recent debate would have made more sense if, instead of taking place on a colonial red-white-and-blue stage, the candidates had ditched the moderator, worn those YouTube headphones, and shouted their insults into oversized mics.

Viewers would then have understood that they were tuning into something akin to The Rush Limbuagh Show, Mike and the Mad Dog, or Howard Stern, and that this was not an attempt to recreate the agora in Periclean Athens. At least we all would have been spared this week’s national disappointment over the quality of the exchanges.

As political candidates, neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden has much to say. Nobody would confuse either of them with Henry Clay or William Pitt the Younger. Neither of them is capable of speaking in complete sentences.

Here’s one Trump answer: “I sent in the US Marshalls to get the killer of a young man in the middle of the street and they shot him for three days Portland didn’t do anything.” Biden said this: “The only way we’re going to bring this country together is bring everybody together.”

Going into the election, all we have are these fragmentary talk-show exchanges (less revealing than hieroglyphic inscriptions found in an Egyptian cave) on which to gamble the future of the republic.

It’s not much, I know. So use these notes as you might the Rosetta Stone. As Stan Mack used to say: “Guarantee: All Dialogue is reported verbatim.”

Ivanka’s Perp Walk to Primetime

I spent a pleasant half hour watching the hall in the medical school at Case Western University fill up with various debate officials and honored guests. During the worst of the pandemic, the auditorium was converted into a Covid M*A*S*H unit.

Now it had the feel of a democratic-themed funeral home, complete with paneled inscriptions from the Declaration of Independence, a Civil War recruiting banner (complete with an eagle) proclaiming “The Union and the Constitution Forever”, and room behind two lecterns for a double-body viewing.

About ten minutes before the debate kickoff, $700,000 external consultant Ivanka Trump, sporting $95,464 worth of makeup and hairspray, led in the delegation of Trump family members, as if part of some stylish perp walk.

Ivanka was dressed in a creamy white outfit (it was hard to tell if it was a jumpsuit), and she sat socially distanced between Tiffany, Kayleigh, and Kimberly, who appeared to have come down from her party convention high.

Eric was there in high glower, taking a break from the search for the Trump tax leaker to the New York Times. (Having read the stories carefully, my sense is that the leaker is an institutional player, with high-speed computers at its disposal, as the massive data dump to the Times isn’t what would emerge from a file that a disgruntled Trump Organization secretary, tired of getting pawed at the Christmas party, would send to the paper.)

Given all the pre-debate blather about how Joe Biden should take a drug test before appearing on stage, I was a little surprised that none of the Trumps showed up with a sniffer dog.

Melania Catwalks: Trick or Treat?

Melania only made her entrance (stage left) after the entourage of Trump defendants had taken their seats. She was wearing a dark gray pinstriped suit with wide lapels, as if for Halloween she is dressing up as a white-collar criminal defense lawyer.

You do wonder if Melania is having some frissons about what she might collect in a post-presidency divorce. Before the tax leaks I guess she was thinking of laying claim to a billion or so, but now I think she’ll be lucky to get out with a season skating pass to Wollman Rink.

Promptly at 9 p.m. the hapless moderator Chris Wallace, the Fox News anchor with less presence than a substitute algebra teacher, called the debate to order, by meekly saying: “The audience here in the hall has promised to remain silent. No cheers, no boos, or other interruptions so we, and more importantly you, can focus on what the candidates have to say.”

Wallace divided the evening into six fifteen-minute segments devoted to Covid-19, the Supreme Court nomination battle, street violence and racial justice, climate change, and the economy, and mail-in balloting.

He need not have wasted his weekend writing up a convoluted lesson plan, as both candidates used their allotted time to go off on tangents. And when they weren’t speaking, they smirked, smiled, clowned, and growled as the other candidate spoke—American politics reduced to on-stage facial GIFs.

For the most part Trump just snarled, a man with a permanent wedgie, while Biden had the slightly detached and bemused look of a greeter at Home Depot.

The Supremes…‘never meant to be…’

Trump’s take on ramming the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett up the ass of Senate Democrats is that he has the numbers to win. (Trump: “We won the election. Elections have consequences. We have the Senate, we have the White House, and we have a phenomenal nominee respected by all.”)

Biden didn’t have much of an answer, as nowhere in the Constitution does it say, “The President shall nominate, and the Senate shall confirm, justices to Supreme Court, unless, in an earlier presidential administration, Mitch McConnell made Barack Obama look like a bedwetter.”

Biden did land a few blows on Trump’s Supreme Court strategies by arguing that a court of Trump footmen (and women) would, as early as mid-November, overturn key features of the Affordable Care Act and strip millions of their health insurance.

Biden also said that under a Trump healthcare plan (Take Two Aspirin and Call Me in Four Years?) many would be excluded from insurance coverage because of pre-existing conditions, including those who have recovered from Covid-19.

It was a strong argument that Biden then muddled with this logic: “The deal is that it’s going to wipe out pre-existing conditions. And, by the way, the 200,000 people that have died on his watch, how many of those have survived?”

Do I think, as I-Work-For-Nothing, Ukraine Muckraker, Personal Lawyer Rudy Giuliani suggested last week, that Biden has dementia? I didn’t quite see that during the debate, although I did detect that some wires in his brain fail to connect, leading to sentence fragments and odd constructions. (To wit: “And by the way, in terms of the whole notion of a vaccine, we’re for a vaccine, but I don’t trust him at all. Nor do you. I know you don’t. What we trust is a scientist.”)

You can figure out what Biden is saying, but with all his sentences there’s a moment of terror, about half way through, when you think he’s going to look up and say, “Now where was I?”

And it tells you how bad Biden is at debate that he allowed Trump to get the better of the argument over the economy during the pandemic.

Basically, the president’s argument was that he was trying to balance public health and economic growth while saying that all Biden wants is to shut down the economy as a campaign tactic to defeat Trump. (That’s a Fox News line on the shutdown.)

Biden failed to mention that the pandemic economic recovery (whatever it happens to be) is thanks to the money that the Congress approved (over Republic opposition), so that Trump could send out one of those Nigerian oil-minister chain letters to every American on the stimulus list. (“I am writing to you as president of a great oil producing nation, and I need your help to spend $3 trillion….”)

President Bernie Madoff

It took a little while for Trump to perfect his schtick, but after about twenty minutes of debate time he was in full shock-jock interruption mode, cutting in on Biden no matter what he said. (To be fair, Biden did the same, if to a lesser degree. Mostly, he just mimed for the camera.)

My sense is that Trump did this deliberately, to rattle Biden into more pronounced stuttering, as it’s hard for someone with a speech impediment to recover quickly from an interruption, and I am a little surprised more mention has not been made of this bullying, schoolyard cruelty on Trump’s part.

Another Trump tactic that worked well (assuming you take some pleasure in rudeness) was that the president not only played the role of debate candidate, but also supplied running Fox News snarky commentary, endlessly muttering asides about Biden into the microphone (“Oh yeah, sure….Forty-seven years, you’ve done nothing. They understand….He doesn’t want to answer the question…That’s wrong….Why didn’t you do it over the last 25 years?)

The interruptions kept Biden from hammering home an argument (truth be told, Joe doesn’t have much of a hammer), and on a few occasions—notably the questions over Trump’s taxes—the interruptions allowed the president to shift the subject completely.

Only a few minutes of the entire debate focused on Trump’s spurious tax returns, but during that time Biden failed to emphasize that Trump is most likely bankrupt, $400 million in hock to banks, loan sharks, Russian and Saudi middlemen, and foreign countries, and that, in terms of historical precedent, Trump is more an heir of Bernie Madoff than Abraham Lincoln.

Biden even let Trump reframe the economic discussion, moving it from the pandemic recession to Hunter Biden’s board service in Ukraine and his clients in Russia. Here’s one exchange:

Trump: China ate your lunch, Joe. And no wonder your son goes in and he takes out billions of dollars. He takes out billions of dollars to manage. He makes millions of dollars. And also, while we’re at it, why is it just out of curiosity, the mayor of Moscow’s wife gave your son three and a half million dollars?

Biden: That is not true.

Trump: What did he do to deserve it? What did he do with…

Vice President Joe Biden: None of that is true.

Trump: … to deserve $183,000?

Joe Biden: None of that is true.

Trump: Oh really, he didn’t get three and a half million?

Not exactly snappy rejoinders, and it went on in this vein for several minutes, with Biden issuing his rote denials, reminding me that throughout the 2016 campaign Hillary Clinton never developed coherent talking points to explain why all her State Department emails were routed through a CompUSA server located in her Chappaqua, New York basement.

Nor, in response, did Biden bring up that during the first two years of his presidency, Trump took in, according to the New York Times, $73 million from his foreign operations (on which he paid that $750 in federal tax). Throughout the debate Joe remained the deer Hunter in the headlights.

Twelve Steps with Joe and Chris

Trump only answered the questions about African-Americans and justice with allusions to urban violence and the police—the implication being that every Black American, in Trump’s mind, is burning cop cars in Portland, Oregon.

Race for Trump is an abstraction, something he glimpses from his limousine on his way to MAGA rallies. He also seems stuck in a 1960s image of cities (Black and full of rioters) and suburbs (happy young white couples pushing baby strollers).

Trump said: “…if you look at New York where it’s going up, like nobody’s ever seen anything. The numbers are going up a 100%, 150%, 200% crime, it is crazy what’s going on and he [Biden] doesn’t want to say law and order because he can’t because he’ll lose his radical left supporters and once he does that, it’s over with. But if he ever got to run this country and they ran it the way he would want to run it, we would have by the way our suburbs would be gone.

Over and over, on issues of race, all Trump could bring up was that he had more police union endorsements that Biden. (“He doesn’t have any law support. He has no law enforcement.”) Then they had this exchange:

Biden: That’s not true.

Trump: He has almost nothing. Oh, really, who do you have name one group that supports you name one group that came out and supported you. Go ahead. Think we have time.

Biden: We don’t have time to do anything.

Trump: No, no think right now. Name one law enforcement group that came out in support of you.

Wallace: Now, gentleman, I think I’m going to take back the bottom line.

Biden is lucky that Wallace jumped in to save him, or we might all still be in Cleveland, waiting for Biden to think of a police department that supports him.

Biden is also lucky that forensic linguists haven’t made more of the similarities between what he said during the debate to Trump, “Will you shut up, man” and what he allegedly said in that Senate hallway when staffer Tara Reade rejected his romantic advances, “C’mon, man, I thought you liked me”

The Boer Republic of Trump

A Black Lives Matter discussion led to Wallace asking Trump if “you [are] 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 as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland?”

In responding, Trump tried to haggle with Wallace, and then Biden, who together sounded like a group therapy session trying to coax a confession out of a blocked member. (Wallace: “Well, do it, sir…” Biden: “Say it, do it, say it…”)

Trump didn’t like being cornered at an AA meeting, which may explain why he bobbed and weaved until he uttered the words that may end his presidency: “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.”

He made the Boys sound like his private army, which I guess they are. And if Trump loses this election, I sense that he might move to a camp in Wyoming and take up the cause of Western chauvinism. If he does, here are the four “degrees” of the initiation process:

1. Public declaration that you are a Proud Boy.

2. Being beat up by other members until you name five kinds of breakfast cereal. This degree also includes a vow to stop masturbating.

3. Getting a Proud Boy tattoo.

4. Engaging in physical violence with members of Antifa.

Let’s hope the Boys have heard of Egg McMuffin and All-Bran; otherwise, Trump might find himself charged in the second degree.

Wallace then tried to get each candidate to speak about “why should voters elect you president over your opponent?” For a moment Trump spoke about fixing the VA, appointing all those Federalist Society judges, and the star-trekking Space Force, but when Biden answered to say, “under this president, we become weaker, sicker, poor, more divided and more violent,” Trump switched the subject to Hunter Biden (“Your son got three and half million dollars…Once you became vice president he made a fortune in Ukraine, in China, in Moscow and various other places…”), and the cats were back in the bag.

Only Greenskeepers Can Prevent Forest Fires

When the subject turned to climate change, capping carbon emissions, and the Green New Deal, Trump and Biden sounded like two old guys in their seventies talking about the internets or how to connect their iPads to Zoom.

For Trump the issue of wild fires in the West comes down to “forest management” (“…the forest floors are loaded up with trees, dead trees that are years old and they’re like tinder and leaves and everything else. You drop a cigarette in there the whole forest burns down. You’ve got to have forest management”). He clearly wants the West to look like the gardens at Mar-a-Lago.

Then Trump was off on something he called “forest cities” in Europe, the implication being that many European capitals are located in the equivalent of Sherwood Forest, except that in Europe—unlike California and Oregon—they rake up their leaves.

Trump said: “In Europe, they live they’re forest cities. They call forest cities. They maintain their forest. They manage their forest. I was with the head of a major country, it’s a forest city. He said, ‘Sir, we have trees that are far more, they ignite much easier than California. There shouldn’t be that problem.’ Trump sounded a bit like TRUTHBRARY.org’s Billy Wayne Ruddick (a Sacha Baron Cohen creation), going on about climax change.

On the environment Biden wasn’t much more lucid (“There’s so many things that we can do now to create thousands and thousands of jobs. We can get to net zero, in terms of energy production, by 2035. Not only not costing people jobs, creating jobs, creating millions of good-paying jobs. Not 15 bucks an hour, but prevailing wage, by having a new infrastructure that in fact, is green…”).

It led to this exchange:

Biden: The Green New Deal will pay for itself as we move forward. We’re not going to build plants that, in fact, are great polluting plants…

Wallace: So, do you support the Green New Deal?

Biden: Pardon me?

Wallace: Do you support the–

Biden: No, I don’t support the Green New Deal.

Trump: Oh, you don’t? Oh, well, that’s a big statement.

Biden: I support…

Trump: You just lost the radical left.

Biden: I support…. the Biden plan that I put forward.

Wallace: Okay.

Biden: The Biden plan, which is different than what he calls the radical Green New Deal.

Welcome to the Mad Hatter’s tea party that will be the Biden presidency.

Go ahead, make my election

The debate saved its worst for last, in which we were treated to Trump’s country-club theories on mail-in ballots (“…it’s a disaster”) and given an indication (don’t say you weren’t warned) that it will take a posse to root Trump out of his White House foxhole after he loses the election (“This is not going to end well”).

In the world according to Trump, even though he won the election in 2016, the system was out to get him from the start. He explained:

So when I listen to Joe talking about a transition, there has been no transition from when I won. I won that election. And if you look at crooked Hillary Clinton, if you look at all of the different people, there was no transition, because they came after me trying to do a coup. They came after me spying on my campaign. They started from the day I won, and even before I won. From the day I came down the escalator with our first lady, they were a disaster. They were a disgrace to our country, and we’ve caught them. We’ve caught them all. We’ve got it all on tape. We’ve caught them all. And by the way, you gave the idea for the Logan Act against General Flynn. You better take a look at that, because we caught you in a sense, and President Obama was sitting in the office.

Fast forward to the impeachment (a “hoax”) and now the 2020 election, which the Democrats are about to steal by papering the electoral market with duplicate ballots. (“They’re being sent all over the place. They sent two in a Democrat area. They sent out a thousand ballots. Everybody got two ballots. This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen.”) The fact that barcoded mail-in ballots have better tracing than levered votes in polling stations seems lost on the president.

Trump’s solution to the mail-in ballot legitimacy issue is to deploy goon squads as “poll watchers” on Election Day. How poll-watching Proud Boys et al. in full open carry regalia (Fred Perry polo shirts, lots of flags, mail-order riot gear) can assist or verify the counting of mailed-in ballots wasn’t made clear.

Trump said:

I’m urging my supporters to go in to the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it. As you know, today there was a big problem. In Philadelphia, they went in to watch. They’re called poll watchers, a very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia. Bad things…

Registered, pre-approved candidate poll watchers are one thing; vigilantes outside elementary schools are something else.

Trump Electoral College: Vincere decipiat (“Cheat to win”)

Actually the “fraud like you’ve never seen” is the coming Republican storm that, by challenging the legitimacy of mail-in voting, will attempt to tilt the presidential election into either the House of Representatives (where each state delegation gets one vote) or the Supreme Court (Trump’s personal injury law firm).

How would it work? After the election, in a number of targeted swing states (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio, Arizona), Trump legal teams will contest the outcomes if Biden is deemed the winner and attempt to legitimize a second slate of presidential electors when the Electoral College meets in December to certify the winner of the presidential election.

In some states that have a Republican majority in the state legislature, it might even be possible, during these arguments, for the legislature to overturn the popular vote and vote in Trump electors.

If that’s not possible, the goal will be to use the alleged fraud of mail-in ballots to deny certification of any winner in the Electoral College, where 270 votes are needed to win.

If Trump can tie up the returns in key swing states (the states listed above control 119 electoral votes), those numbers would be sufficient to deny Biden a 270 majority in the Electoral College.

That outcomes would throw the election into the House of Representatives, where at the moment Republicans have a majority in 26 state delegations. (Some of those delegations could turn in the 2020 election, notably in Pennsylvania, which at the moment is even.)

If that’s not a gloomy prospect, consider this: while the House is deciding who should be president, with each state delegation casting one vote until a candidate emerges with at least 26 votes, the Senate would have to choose a vice-president from among the two candidates who received the most votes in the Electoral College (Mike Pence and Kamala Harris).

In the event that the House cannot choose a president by January 20, 2021, that Senate-elected vice-president would serve as acting president until the House chooses the next president.

It means that Mike Pence could become acting president on January 20, 2021, if by that date the Electoral College and the House of Representatives has yet to chosen a president. (While in office, he could pardon Trump and Ivanka for their crimes.)

And if those re-election gambits failed, to stay in power Trump could always invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act and surround the White House with Proud Boys. The Insurrection Act reads:

[I]n all cases of insurrection, or obstruction to the laws, either of the United States, or of any individual state or territory, where it is lawful for the President of the United States to call forth the militia for the purpose of suppressing such insurrection, or of causing the laws to be duly executed, it shall be lawful for him to employ, for the same purposes, such part of the land or naval force of the United States, as shall be judged necessary, having first observed all the pre-requisites of the law in that respect.

We know they are a militia, “standing by,” and I am sure that Attorney General William Barr and the acquiescent Supreme Court would sign off on the precedent.

In the first presidential debate, when Trump said, “And I am urging my people. I hope it’s going to be a fair election. If it’s a fair election…”, Wallace pushed back: “You’re urging them what?” To which Trump responded: “I am 100% on board. But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.”

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.