Looking at the commentary across the web today on last night’s debate, I am compelled to make a short point to append to my original article on the subject.
It’s this. The wailing and moaning from many quarters about Trump’s unwillingness to “follow the rules” are not just elements of a one-sided complaint: one-sided because Biden didn’t follow the rules either, and certainly didn’t need to be shown the way on that. He jumped in and started interrupting Trump at the very beginning. So did Chris Wallace.
No, the wailing and moaning are a painful exposure of what establishment America thinks political debate is.
Larry Sabato put it perfectly in a tweet from mid-debate.
CANCEL THE REMAINING PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES. It is impossible to have an orderly, productive exchange with Donald Trump. Stop pretending otherwise. #Debate2020
— Larry Sabato (@LarrySabato) September 30, 2020
So for a debate to be “orderly and productive,” a candidate must be submissive about being given one slanted question after another (a number of them with demonstrably invalid premises), and on top of that being incessantly lied about (e.g., “racist,” anti-science, patron of “white supremacists”; the Big Lie about “very fine people” in Charlottesville; the entirely subjective, anti-empirical allegation that Trump has killed 200,000 Americans; etc.).
Trump was notably unwilling to submit to that. Rather than accept it, he relentlessly disrupted the “orderly” debate. He couldn’t coerce the debate into a semblance of fairness by anything he said or did, so he disrupted the debate’s moderation and pace. He was fighting back against the slanted questions and lies.
The mainstream commentators think he should rather have sat still for them.
That’s what they think orderly politics is. Sitting still for slanted – loaded – questions and lies. There may be some who actually believe the biased treatment of Trump is based on truth, or at least is justified in some way. But too many of them have demonstrated a very tenuous relationship with the truth for us to assume they are complaining in good faith.
Larry Sabato isn’t one who can’t recognize truth when he finds it dead in his lunchbox. He seems to still have discernment in that regard. But such old hands are well aware that political discourse in establishment America has become an exercise in framing partial lies, half-truths, and whole-cloth fiction to advance political narratives, rather than to reflect reality.
And that, in those old hands’ eyes, is what is “orderly and productive.” They would shrug and say there’s nothing you can do about it, and it all shakes out in the wash, etc., etc. Shoulder the lies, the biased moderation, the slanted questions, and see if you can get your point across anyway. That’s what Mitt Romney, John McCain, and George W. Bush all did.
How do you fight that assumption, other than disrupting its operation?
Trump’s core of supporters saw what he was doing. They’re sick to death of that conventional basis for political interchange. It may seem orderly to some; to Trump’s supporters it is the screaming opposite of “productive.” It’s a big part of what brought us to the recent decades of out-of-control government being weaponized day after day against the people, the brunt of which, visited almost entirely on them, is Trump supporters’ chief complaint.
They’re not wrong to see it that way – as a pervasive, pernicious condition that has to be fought and broken, whatever it takes. You don’t fight on the terms designed to keep you at a disadvantage. That’s as good as to not fight at all.
Whether he has the conscious intention or not, Trump is fighting to “break the square” those terms of “orderly politics” form themselves into (the “square” being a traditional infantry fighting concept for centuries on set-piece battlefields. “Breaking the square” is setting it in disorder so that it can’t defend itself or act in concert).
That’s not a bad thing. I see no reason why our concept of what is “orderly and productive” must remain one of accepting loaded questions and lies as the ascendant, inevitable currency of our political discourse. I’m bemused by seeing that reflexively defended as if we ought to embrace it as a standard. Loaded questions and lies.
As always, Trump is acting in service of tactical kinesis with every word he utters. He’s not trying to join someone else’s debate already in progress. He’s trying to win.
Addendum: I just looked at media commentary again. People are beside themselves out there that breaking a bacterial membrane of complacent lies and loaded premises off of us is disruptive and uncomfortable to our polemical habits.
But as a matter of fact, we shouldn’t accept loaded questions and lies as the hallmarks of orderliness and productivity. Trump fighting them kinetically is jarring, but it is far better than not fighting them at all.