Say It Ain’t So, Joe

Photograph Source: United Press International – Public Domain

Since Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy faced off in 1960, presidential debates have been threepenny operas, not Socratic dialogues.

The New York Times correspondent Russell Baker covered the first Kennedy – Nixon debate in 1960. Wanting to concentrate on the content, he decided to listen to an audio feed and not watch it on television, and he came away thinking that Nixon had won.

Only the next day did Baker hear from those who watched on television that Nixon appeared haggard and drawn (in the words of humorist Dave Barry, “as though he had been coached by ferrets”) and that JFK (“looking tanned and relaxed”) had won the debate.

In a similar vein, anyone who watched the Trump – Biden debate came to the immediate conclusion that Biden was a dead-man running, unable to recite all the lines that he had memorized for the school play.

Biden looked dazed and out of touch, spoke in a hoarse stage whisper, and ended his soliloquies with the fixed expression of a department store mannequin.

But if you read the transcript of the debate (as I have done), you might well decide that Biden was the winner, if only because he tried to answer the moderators’ questions while all Trump managed to do was string together a stream-of-consciousness, Finnegan’s Wake-like diatribe that amounted to 90 minutes of pathological lying.

Here, for example, is Trump’s take on the events of January 6th, which he blames on Nancy Pelosi (leaving aside that it was Trump supporters, not Madame Speaker, who relieved themselves on her desk):

And if you would see my statements that I made on Twitter at the time, and also my statement that I made in the Rose Garden, you would say its one of the strongest statements youve ever seen. In addition to the speech I made in front of, I believe the largest crowd Ive ever spoken to. And I will tell you, nobody ever talks about that. They talk about a relatively small number of people that went to the Capitol and in many cases, were ushered in by the police. And as Nancy Pelosi said, it was her responsibility, not mine. She said that loud and clear.

In TrumpNetherWorld, it was the United States Capitol Police who “ushered” into the Congress all of those rioters dressed like Viking shamans and swinging hockey sticks. Who knew?

* * *

I realize that it is beside the point that Biden may have won the debate on paper. To use the definitions of Neil Postman in his wonderful book Amusing Ourselves to Death, his victory, if it was one, came from the Age of Exposition (think of Lincoln and Douglas), while we now inhabit a YouTube, TikTok Age of Show Business (in which Donald Trump plays the role of a game show host turned mobster politician).

On screen, Biden looked and sounded like a somnambulist whose only connection to politics was a haphazard, recited laundry list of federal programs that have saved everyone from unwed mothers to homeless veterans, but at least the president came to the debate with malice toward none (Gazans might have been the exception), while from the other lectern Trump was little more than a fountain of bile.

Nor did Trump ever deign to answer the questions posed by the moderators, who no matter what they asked received a prerecorded message that had been market-tested at innumerable Trump rallies. Here are some debate samplings of Trump’s ravings:

—The problem they have is theyre radical, because they will take the life of a child in the eighth month, the ninth month, and even after birth. After birth, if you look at the former governor of Virginia, he was willing to do this. He said, “Well put the baby aside and well determine what we do with the baby,” meaning, Well kill the baby.”

—So that means he [Biden] can take the life of the baby in the ninth month and even after birth, because some states, Democrat-run, take it after birth.

—We have a border thats the most dangerous place anywhere in the world. Consider the most dangerous place anywhere in the world, and he opened it up and these killers are coming into our country and they are raping and killing women, and its a terrible thing.

—All he [Biden] had to do was leave it, all he had to do was leave it. He decided to open up our border, open up our country to people that are from prisons, people that are from mental institutions, insane asylum, terrorists. We have the largest number of terrorists coming into our country right now. All terrorists, all over the world. Not just in South America, all over the world, they come from the Middle East, everywhere.

—As sure as youre sitting there, the fact is that his big kill on the Black people is the millions of people that hes allowed to come in through the border. Theyre taking Black jobs now. And it could be 18, it could be 19 and even 20 million people. Theyre taking Black jobs and theyre taking Hispanic jobs. And you havent seen it yet, but youre going to see something thats going to be the worst in our history.

Trump’s America is a dark place, overrun with illegal immigrants (fresh from jailbreaks) who are raping and killing their way across the southern border and heading north to check into luxury hotels from which they will take “Black jobs” and sign up for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (bankrupting those programs).

* * *

Were Biden not sleepwalking toward November, Trump would be nothing but a caricature of a country club Republican—denouncing welfare queens and lying about his golf game.

In the debate he crooned: “I just won two club championships, not even senior, two regular club championships. To do that, you have to be quite smart and you have to be able to hit the ball a long way.” (To that SNL’s Tommy Flanagan, of Pathological Liars Anonymous, might add: “Yeah, club champion…twice…that’s the ticket…”)

What’s also bizarre about the self-proclaimed billionaire (admittedly one in the $750 tax bracket) is that whenever the debate turned to business and economics Trump gave answers that sounded like those you hear from beauty pageant contestants when asked, “If you could only have one wish, what would you wish for?”

To this day billionheir Trump understands nothing about tariffs, how they are assessed and who pays the freight. He still thinks that when Chinese products are subject to American tariffs, it’s the Chinese who are paying the higher prices to the U.S. government.

In the debate he said: “In all fairness to China, its going to just force them to pay us a lot of money, reduce our deficit tremendously, and give us a lot of power for other things.”

Sorry, Don, tariffs are a tax imposed by the importing countries, to make imports more expensive, and the higher prices, in this case, are paid by the American importers and consumers (not the Chinese).

Likewise, Trump would seem to understand almost nothing about fiscal policy, bragging how his $2 trillion in tax cuts (mostly to his Mar-a-Memo golfing buddies) resulted in increased revenue to the federal government and a lower deficit.

In fact, under Trump the budget deficit skyrocketed to $3.13 trillion and the national debt went from about $20 trillion to $28 trillion, aligning the balance sheet of the federal government with the financials of such stalwart companies as Trump Steaks, Trump Airlines, Trump Vodka, Trump Mortgage, Trump University, Trump Ice, Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Plaza Casinos, Trump Hotels and Casinos Resorts, and Trump Entertainment Resorts (all of which went to the wall).

* * *

I realize that fact-checking Trump’s debate performance is a mug’s game (not unlike Trump: The Game, which also went broke) in that despite Trump’s non-stop lying to the electorate, it’s Joe Biden who is now being asked to walk the plank for his stuttering and lack of focus.

At this point, Biden is a dead candidate running, someone who cannot possibly win in November. Nor, seemingly, can he or his handlers come up with a graceful way for him to exit the race and leave the Democrats with anything more than an electoral dumpster fire. Seemingly, the party inner circle is down to Dr. Jill and the Laptop Hunter.

Part of the reason why Biden will probably have to go down with the good ship Democracy is that the Ohio legislature refused to change a state law that requires national parties to declare their ticket by August 7 in order to get a presidential candidate on the state ballot, and this year the Democratic convention does not meet in Chicago until August 19 – 22.

Meaning: if Biden were to withdraw now from the race and release his pledged delegates to vote at the convention for whomever they chose, there would be no Democratic Party candidate on the ballot in Ohio, making it difficult for other Democrats (Senator Sherrod Brown is one) to win “down-ballot” races.

* * *

The idea of an open convention appeals to political sentimentalists, who remember that it took the Democrats 104 ballots to nominate John W. Davis in 1924, and that it took the Republicans 36 ballots in 1880 to nominate James Garfield over Ulysses Grant. As late as the 33rd ballot, Garfield had only received one vote.

But the only thing the Democrats hate more than competitive primaries is an open convention, which might well rob the party hierarchs (think of the Clintons, Barack Obama, Senator Charles Schumer, and the Hamptons Hollywood donor class) of the chance to place their thumbs on the scales.

For now, for reasons none of them can explain, Biden is their favorite son, despite his broken diction, shuffling walk, and thousand-yard stare. Clearly, the only compromise on which all these superpredators can agree is that Biden best represents their collective interests, even if individually all must surely be writing him off as DOA.

* * *

You might think that with the Supreme Court throwing its padded expense accounts and Jolly Rogers in with a Trump coup détat, the stars should be aligning for the Democrats in this election cycle.

In Trump the Democrats have an opposition candidate who has abused and raped women, slept extramaritally with porn stars, has billions (so he claims) but pays no taxes, owes $500 million in civil judgments, uses siphoned campaign money to pay his lawyers, bankrupts most of his companies, purloins state secrets and hides them in a country club pool room, has been charged with sedition and espionage, and thought it excellent when his rabble at arms in front of the Capitol hit upon the idea of hanging his vice president, Mike Pence.

Yet against the combined front of judges in the bag and the psychotic Trump, the best the Democrats can offer is a tin man who during 90 minutes of debate could only muster this memorable line:

And the idea that hes talking about all this being fabricated, we saw with our own eyes, we saw what happened on January 6th. We saw the people breaking through the windows. We saw people occupying his own vice president.

Look, theres a reason why 40 of his 44 top cabinet officers refused to endorse him this time. His vice president hasnt endorsed him this time. So why? Why? They know him well. They served with him. Why are they not endorsing him?

Otherwise, the Republicans appear as a juggernaut before the trembling Democrats, none of whom seem to have big boy pants.

* * *

The person with the most fingerprints on the Democratic collapse is Barack Obama, Mr. Hope and Change, who, it turned out, was only dreaming of a beach house on Martha’s Vineyard and Netflix millions.

Let’s start with Trump’s in-house law firm, otherwise known as the Supreme Court, about which former constitutional law professor Barack Obama should have known something.

Rather than pressure Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (then in her 80s and a cancer survivor) in 2015-16 to retire from the Court when he was president and in a position to nominate a worthy successor, Obama just assumed that his anointed presidential heiress, Hillary Clinton, would win in 2016. How could she not if she had the unction of St. Barack?

Even before Clinton lost to Trump, Obama decided not to get his golf gloves dirty in tangling with Mitch McConnell over the nomination of Merrick Garland to replace Antonin Scalia.

Ginsburg died six weeks before the 2020 election, allowing Trump and McConnell a window in which to shove People of Praise cultist Amy Coney Barrett onto the high court.

The Supreme Court today should have a 5-4 liberal majority. Instead (thanks, Barack), with a 6-3 Opus Dei majority (including Budweiser’s favorite associate justice, Brett Kavanaugh), the court is little more than a Trump-owned personal injury law firm that thinks nothing of Clarence Thomas auctioning his votes to right-wing influence peddlers.

No wonder the Roberts gang has decided to launch its putsch with the immunized Donald Trump as its Trojan horse. What does it have to fear from the Democrats?

So much, too, for the legal theory of original intent, as to my knowledge the Constitution does not contain a clause that reads:

Once he has left office the President shall be immune from criminal prosecution or conviction arising from the sworn testimony of any Adult film actress, notably one who has appeared in Bikini Kitchen: Volume 2 or Operation Desert Stormy.

* * *

Blame Obama, too, for the current Biden candidacy debacle. In 2020, when the primaries were just getting interesting with Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bloomberg, and Elizabeth Warren articulating differing views, Barack strong-armed Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg out of the primaries so that, after South Carolina, Biden could moonwalk to the nomination (despite a fourth place finish in Iowa and his fifth place in New Hampshire).

I suspect it was the Clintons (more than Obama) who saddled Biden with the emotionally-challenged Kamala Harris, but it was clearly Obama who in 2023 blessed Joe’s decision to run for re-election in 2024—no doubt on the logic that the robotic Harris could never defeat Trump.

Now we are not hearing anything except stage whispers from the Obama camp about whether Joe should resign from the race or who should replace him; it is summer after all and the golf course on Marthas Vineyard beckons.

Hence you have the perfect monarchic storm: the Supreme Court seizing the radio station and selling immunity indulgences to the criminal Trump while the Democratic candidate is left behind, trying to count up the trimesters in Roe v. Wade.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.