Home/Rod Dreher/The Debate Disaster

The Debate Disaster

A bad night for America (Photo by SAUL LOEB,JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

I am busy today doing interviews for my book, but I want to make a quick post about last night’s debate. I think it was a landmark in American history — in all the wrong ways.

It was a disgrace, and Donald Trump is almost entirely at fault.

Old Joe Biden is a feeble man, no doubt about it. Trump hit him hard a couple of times in the debate, and showed how weak he is. He is going to be a transitional figure towards a harder, more ideological left, which will dominate him if he is elected president. I expect no good things to come to us from a Biden administration. He refused to say he wouldn’t engage in court-packing. I expect that wokeness will advance throughout the government, paralleling its march through society’s institutions, and that life for conservatives, small-o orthodox Christians, and other dissenters will get much tougher.

Having said that … my God, I never imagined I would see an American president refuse to say he would accept the results of the election if he loses. That’s our democracy, right there. That’s it. A constitutional democratic order depends on the peaceful transfer of power. Trump’s refusal simply to follow the ordinary rules of debate last night — his constant talking over Biden — symbolized his inner refusal to live by the rules that govern our constitutional order. It was repulsive and frightening. He is unfit for office.

He pointedly refused to condemn white supremacists. He disgustingly rubbed Joe Biden’s face in the fact of Hunter Biden’s drug abuse — something that I don’t believe will play well at all with most people. All of us have in our families or circles of friends someone who has struggled with drugs or alcohol. One of the things I admire about Joe Biden is that he has not disowned his failson. I think Hunter Biden’s capitalizing on his father’s power for personal gain is fair game, but for pity’s sake, don’t trash a man’s son for his brokenness with substance abuse. If they weren’t politicians, but two ordinary guys in a bar, I would have loved to have seen Joe Biden walk over and cold-cock Trump for trashing his boy.

I can’t believe I wrote that line about a presidential debate. This is what Trump, the chaos agent, brings to our politics.

What a disaster for Trump! The thing is, Trump really could make some powerful critiques of Biden and the Democrats. When Trump talked about rooting out anti-white racism in the federal government, that should have been a clear winner for Trump. It’s not “racial sensitivity,” as Chris Wallace deceptively framed it, but straight-up racism. Trump is right on that issue. But he didn’t explain that clearly, and his later refusal to condemn white supremacists played right into the hands of the left.

Biden wasn’t great at all, but he won that debate by seeming normal. This is deceptive: Biden described the racist indoctrinations that so many of us are now subjected to in the workplace as mere sensitivity training, teaching people how to be more decent. It’s not true! But he got away with it because Trump seems to irrational. Biden earlier this year described transgender rights as “the civil rights issue of our time.” That is incredibly radical, but nobody sees that because it doesn’t get called out, and because Trump’s maniacal blustering makes Biden, who, like the contemporary Democratic Party, really does advocate radical things, seem like the sane center.

I watched the debate with my family. The kids are older, and understand what’s going on. It was a civic exercise. By the end of it, we all felt sick and angry and anxious — and it was all Trump’s fault. By the end we were shouting at the TV, “Shut up and let him talk!” There was nothing remotely edifying about that display — and again, it was Trump’s fault. What the hell are my kids supposed to think of their country when a bully like that is president, and believes that that’s how a president behaves? Trump turned it into Meet The Press by way of The Jerry Springer Show.

This is so damned depressing. I have just published a book about how the left, driven by social justice warriors, is going to institute soft totalitarianism. Last night showed me how it’s going to happen. Trump is likely to lose this election because a majority of voters are just tired of all the chaos and craziness. Trump defeated himself last night.

Anyway, Trump is likely to lose, and cause a constitutional crisis by contesting the election past any reasonable lines. Removing him is going to be a deeply destabilizing event. He’s not going to go away, either: he’s going to carry on trying to undermine Biden, and urging his supporters toward civil unrest. It seems clear from last night that that is his plan.

This is going to provide an excuse for the Democrats and all their ideological allies throughout American corporate life and institutional life to tighten the vise on anyone who dissents. They are going to do whatever they can to try to prevent another Trump from rising.

This is what Trump’s crackpot bullying is going to cost us. I received this letter this morning from a reader, who gives me permission to publish it without his name:

I am a lawyer in Missouri (not exactly a bastion of progressivism). Missouri has adopted a continuing legal education requirement of 1 hour per year for “implicit bias” training. I was sitting in the webinar yesterday and noted a few things.

The instructor opened up with the following statement: “I don’t want to take time to convince you that implicit bias exists – we all understand that it does.” This is quite a presumption, given that the implicit bias studies have had, generously, mixed results. But I think it’s revelatory that the woke religion is pretty much the default, assumed faith nearly everywhere.

Another interesting thing that was said up front was that our instructor did not want to guilt us.He contrasted his presentation with one he’d attended entitled “We are all criminals” (I’m not kidding). He went on to say that we probably are, but that such an approach would not be “effective.” So, in sum, white lawyers are “criminals” but we’re not going to say it out loud because we want to convince them to get on board. It reminded me of every time the left does or says something reprehensible, there are always the liberal columns that “condemn” the action not on substance, but on the fact that it was a tactical misstep. A prime example would be the torrent of articles to condemn Beto O’Rourke’s promise to strip tax exemption status from religious organizations who didn’t get on board with the new orthodoxy not because it’s wrong, but because it gave conservatives a talking point.

In a profession that is a mere 17% conservative leaning, this will probably go unchallenged. I would be surprised if, in a generation, the legal profession will even tolerate dissenting views within its ranks.

He’s right about that. This is part of the soft totalitarian order that the left is advancing through the institutions right now! We conservatives ought to be on our best game to fight it. Instead, we got the revolting spectacle of Donald Trump last night. Again: he has in principle a powerful case to make against the left. But he’s too lazy and undisciplined to make it. He just trash-talks and bullies. Even if somehow he happens to be re-elected, look for leaders in the many institutions of American society (e.g., law schools) to radicalize even further in opposition to him.

Former TAC editor Dan McCarthy has been one of the most articulate supporters of Trump. But he thought Trump lost last night because of the ridiculous way he behaved:

Trump chose to fight not only Biden but also the debate process and conventional politics itself. The cost of this, besides turning off wavering voters, is that it blotted out most of the substantial arguments that could be made for the president’s agenda.

Exactly! Trump came across as an authoritarian goon. And should Biden win, and the left continues to bring about soft totalitarianism throughout American society, all of us on the right should remember last night’s debate. (Note well that authoritarianism means a consolidation of political power in one person or party; totalitarianism is an extreme form of authoritarianism, which is the consolidation of political power in a society in which everything has been politicized.) Given the power of our enemies, our side needed a skilled fighter; we got a saloon drunk who demeans his office and our democracy. The Greeks were right: character really is destiny.

OK, time to do another interview about Live Not By Lies, which is becoming ever more relevant by the day. It is hard to have watched that spectacle last night and have much hope in our democracy. It was a terrible night for America. It feels like the republic really is dying.

UPDATE: A friend does not share my view:

I spent several weekends camping with Trump supporters this summer. They literally see him as the only thing standing between them and socialism and totalitarianism.
You cannot underestimate the fear of what the Left has become.
This isn’t about personalities. This is about competing views of what our country should be.
Both conservatives and liberals I talk believe the country will split in their lifetime, that union cannot, and perhaps should not, hold.
UPDATE.2: Reader Radur comments:
Thanks for writing this, Rod. I can see some of the parallels that you are seeing with the Romanovs—unforced errors that amplify the discontent of the masses and kindle the fires of revolution.
That’s a good point. Looking back on the history of the Russian Revolution, it does not make the Bolsheviks one bit less evil to point out that the Tsar and the establishment bore some responsibility for bringing this on themselves. From Live Not By Lies:

At dinner in a Russian Orthodox family’s apartment in the Moscow suburbs, I was shaken by our table talk of Soviet oppression through which the father and mother of the household had lived. “I don’t understand how anybody could have believed what the Bolsheviks promised,” I said glibly.

“You don’t understand it?” said the father at the head of the table. “Let me explain it to you.” He then launched into a three hundred-year historical review that ended with the 1917 Revolution. It was a pitiless tale of rich and powerful elites, including church bureaucrats, treating peasants little better than animals.

“The Bolsheviks were evil,” the father said. “But you can see where they came from.”

I believe that what the progressives in the Democratic Party in this country are going to bring on it is going to be disastrous, and yes, evil. But when the history of this revolution is told, what happened last night on that debate stage is going to be a landmark moment in its coming. We conservatives are heavily outmatched, and need a smart, capable, disciplined fighter. What we got was an arrogant man who invites contempt, even of people skeptical of the woke Democrats. He is his own worst enemy, or at least was last night.

Reader Kyle W.:

It’s starting to feel like our present situation differs from the Spanish Civil War mainly in that the Right gets to have in its standard-bearer all the authoritarianism and moral compromise of Franco, without any of the gravitas or managerial competence of Franco. The Left, meanwhile, just needs to openly burn down a few more churches in between all the storefronts, and they’ll fit the bill exactly. God have mercy on us all.

Yes. Once again, I urge you all to watch at least this first episode of a 1980s British TV documentary about the Spanish Civil War. That episode is about the prelude to the war — how both left and right ratcheted the stakes higher and higher, until war was inevitable.

After last night, it is clear to me that one of two things will happen:

  1. Trump will win re-election, and the left will be so rebellious throughout institutions that they will accelerate wokeness as a form of resistance, overwhelming his ability to cope with it; or
  2. Biden will win, and the fallout from Trump’s refusal to accept the results will compel the left — which was already going to accelerate wokeness throughout the government — to undertake that project with even more ardor, claiming that they have to do so to protect the Republic from Trumpism

Either way, America is in trouble. Big trouble. Prepare, while there is time.

UPDATE.3: This comports 100 percent with my experience watching the debate with my family:

I would have walked away from the screen after the first 45 minutes or so if I didn’t feel compelled to watch it for my job. Everything about the way Trump behaved made me despise him — and I say that as someone who might yet vote for him. The constant talking over Biden, and Chris Wallace having to beg the President of the United States to be civil — it was truly a miserable experience.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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