Student Opinion: Presidential Debate: The Buck Stops Anywhere But Here

By: Jacob Derin

Tuesday’s presidential debate proved once again that the President is a man incapable of taking responsibility. Besides his blatant lies, this fact defines the Trump era.

The President spent his first debate with Biden playing the hits (blaming China for the coronavirus pandemic, equivocating on the topic of far-right organizations and, of course, plenty of bald-faced lies), but he did something else which was much more telling. 

When he wasn’t speaking out of turn (both literally and figuratively), he spent his time on the debate stage deflecting blame onto other sources. China, the Obama administration, poor forest management in California and so on. 

The one thing he noticeably declined to do was accept any for himself.

Watching this debate was a frankly exhausting experience, and I found myself continually reminded of Brandolini’s Law, which states, “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”

It seemed clear that the President’s strategy in this debate was to produce so much bullshit in such a short period of time that neither his opponent nor the moderator would have time to refute it. From his attacks on Hunter Biden, based on dubious sources, his attacks on mail-in-voting, based on no sources, to his claim that Biden refused to say the words “law enforcement,” which was simply bizarre.

This is nothing new, as Trump lies constantly and with abandon. Throughout the debate, however, he made the damning choice to insidiously respond to criticism with non-sequiturs. 

Despite his incessant lies, some of Trump’s responses were a little more credible, such as his denial of Biden’s figure of 100 million Americans with pre-existing health conditions. 

In fact, sources disagree on the true number. 

This, of course, impressively misses the point. Trump’s efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act leave those people in jeopardy, and whether there are 100 million, 53 million or 130 million of them, the ultimate result of his actions could still be massive harm inflicted on millions of Americans.

Instead of accepting responsibility for the potential outcome of his proposal, Trump attempted, once again, to distract his audience from the real problem. 

His citation of Doctor Fauci’s resistance to mask use early in the pandemic is based on fact. But, it ignores his equally real, and debatable, but certainly good faith, reasons. 

More importantly, it is no defense of his administration’s chaotic and inept response to the crisis: its failure to give direction to individual state governments, the President’s inconsistent messaging around mask use or his very late invocation of the Defense Production Act –– an act to force corporations to produce vital supplies, such as ventilators and testing equipment.

Even the question of Hunter Biden’s alleged misconduct in Ukraine doesn’t really bear on anything relevant to the debate or a potential future Trump or Biden presidency. This is an example of “Whataboutism,” a favorite tool of Soviet-era propagandists.

All of this occurred in the few moments, during which one or both candidates were actually audible, as Trump repeatedly interrupted both Biden and Wallace.

As a debate, this event was a failure, another low point in American political discourse, which seems to fall ever lower by the day. It does seem to be a pretty good metaphor for the Trump presidency, however, with its chaos, division and relentless pessimism.

I’ve long thought that Trump thrives in chaos. He was elected by people justifiably disillusioned with the American political system and given a mandate: tear it down. Tear down its norms of civility, its economic structure, its liberal elites and its corrupt institutions.

The philosopher Friederich Neitzsche makes a distinction between the active and the passive nihilist. The latter believes that since nothing has any inherent meaning, his right course of action is to opt-out and do nothing. The former wants to prove this lack of inherent meaning and does so by exposing the faults of moral systems, the failures of society and the hypocrisy of those who believe in something.

In my view, Trump is very much an active nihilist, carrying out his mandate. But, one consequence of that nihilism is that it purposefully eats up all the oxygen in the room and leaves no opportunity for the criticism of his opponents to sink in.

Harry Truman famously kept a sign on his desk which declared, “The buck stops here!” The motto of this President seems to be precisely the reverse.

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  1. Keith Olsen

    blaming China for the coronavirus pandemic

    Ummmm, it is kind of China’s fault.  It started there and they tried to hide it.  They also let people fly out to destinations all over the world knowing they had a pandemic on their hands.

    Can we just admit it now, both of these presidential candidates are a complete joke.  They are both clowns.  I didn’t think the choices could get worse than the last election with Hillary, but it did.

    I’m still voting for Trump because if Biden gets in the country will go completely left with activists like AOC and the Squad having way too much input.  Biden will be nothing more than a puppet with others pulling all the strings.

    1. Don Shor

      Can we just admit it now, both of these presidential candidates are a complete joke.  They are both clowns. 

      There is no equivalence between the candidates whatsoever. Biden is a classic traditional Democrat, a decent man with a compelling personal history and extraordinary empathy. His career is predicated on an ability to get things done by bridging differences and seeking compromise. Donald Trump is completely indecent, has literally no empathy, and is the least competent president we’ve had in my lifetime.  And that isn’t even getting to the harm Trump has done to our international alliances, the race-baiting that is a constant refrain in his career, his spectacular dishonesty about literally everything, and his fondness for authoritarianism.

      if Biden gets in the country will go completely left with activists like AOC and the Squad having way too much input.

      I see no reason to believe their “input” will be out of proportion to the popularity of the progressive Democrats among the public. Just ask any progressive you know how much ‘input’ you think they’ll have with Kamala Harris as VP, Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker, and Chuck Schumer as the Senate leader. They’ll be consulted, they’ll have some influence on social policies, but nothing too extreme is going to get to the president’s desk. I think you, and many progressives, give them way more credit than they merit for any impact on policies.

      At least you think Trump is a clown. That’s progress.


      1. David Greenwald

        The left was frequently frustrated with Obama, and Biden is more moderate than Obama was. See no reason to believe the same won’t be true with Biden.

    2. Jacob Derin

      Hello Keith. I believe you are missing my point. There are multiple legitimate criticisms of China’s response to the emergence of COVID-19. Though, I fail to see how a virus this contagious, which displays asymptomatic transmission, could have been fully contained by the Chinese government once it entered the human population.

      However, none of the real faults in China’s response absolve the Trump Administration of its responsibility for how it responded to this crisis when it had reached our shores. Pointing the finger back at China is a futile endeavor at that point. The virus reached us, as it reached the rest of the world. Now, all that matters is dealing with it as effectively as possible, to save as many lives as we can. The blame game becomes all the more morbid when it’s being played over the corpses of 210,000 Americans.

          1. David Greenwald

            I reject that analogy Keith. You are blaming China for failing to contain the virus when the US has had no better success at doing so.

        1. Robb Davis

          Your story does not go far enough.  Your neighbor fails to disclose the severity of his disease and it spreads to your family.  Some of you get sick.  Then your neighbor admits it.  It is too late to do anything about your family getting sick.

          But now, instead of taking actions to assure that other neighbors in your neighborhood don’t get sick too, YOU hide the truth about the severity from them and seek to go about your normal life.

          Meanwhile, the first neighbor and some others from further away, figure out how to control the spread of this illness.  Even though the evidence is clear, you refuse to change your or your families behavior.  But what’s worse, you actively try to convince other neighbors that it is not that big a deal, that it will go away, that you will eventually get it anyway, that it is actually NOT that serious, and that if a few older people have to die that’s okay because they were going to die anyway.

          Your first neighbor, and many others who followed his lead are getting their lives back together.  Your other neighbors continue to get sick and spread it to others. You keep blaming the first neighbor for all their illness and death.

        2. Keith Olsen

          Then your neighbor doesn’t want you to know he spread the virus to you and your family so he has his doctors killed or imprisoned in order to quiet them while he travels all over the world.

        3. Robb Davis

          And you continue to blame the first neighbor though you have added to their obfuscation with your own, condemning your neighbors to mortality and morbidity—always pointing the finger at someone else and never ONCE acknowledging your role in furthering the spread.

          You have proven the point of this article.

        4. Keith Olsen

          Then your neighbor claims he’s not the one who spread the virus to you and your family and points the finger at the other neighbor down the street.

        5. Robb Davis

          Then you get sick—sick enough to have to go to the hospital. But you don’t worry because you have the best care available to anyone on the planet.  You use the opportunity to send a nice message to all your neighbors that this virus is not so bad—that they should not worry about it, and that everything is going to be fine.

          Your neighbors receive your message with questions since some of their friends have died and others have gotten really sick.  They also realize that they did not have access to the kind of care you have.  So they are confused.

          You keep pointing to the first neighbor as the problem—as you have done from the beginning.  Proving, once again, the point of this article.

      1. Jacob Derin

        Keith, you are still ignoring what I’m trying to say. I’m not defending China’s response to the emergence of COVID-19. The government’s efforts to suppress information were harmful and self-serving.

        But I’m saying two other things:

        Firstly, even if the government had dealt with the disease honestly and openly, true containment would have been more or less impossible because of rapid, asymptomatic transmission.

        Secondly, the existence of COVID-19 in the United States has been known to the American government since at least the early part of this year, and yet the federal government’s response to it has been an utter disaster on every conceivable level. Responding to that fact by criticizing China borders on non-sequitur.

  2. Tia Will

    My thanks to Jacob Derin for this article. Jacob, you taught me something. Although I have been keenly aware for years of the truth of the principle, I was unaware of the name Bartolini’s Law.


  3. John Hobbs

    Please delete Keith’s untrue, incompetent, mendacious and harmful post.

    It’s Brandolini’s law, btw Tia.

    Trump’s unnecessary use of oxygen can so easily be solved.

    Figuratively: Mr. Biden should simply refuse to share a stage with him and offer to debate remotely only if the moderator has a kill switch for the audio feed.

    Literally: Try him and convict him of treason. Rope is cheap.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Please delete Keith’s untrue, incompetent, mendacious and harmful post.

      Which one?  Hard to keep track…

      Mr. Biden should simply refuse to share a stage with him and offer to debate remotely only if the moderator has a kill switch for the audio feed.

      Nah (sort of)… as my spouse pointed out, like what the Davis CC was faced with… muting vicious, irrelevant communication… not actually a 1st amendment issue… like “yelling, FIRE!” in a crowded amphitheater… the Supremes have already dismissed that as a 1st amendment issue…

      My spouse and I agree that a ‘kill switch’ as to mike would actually benefit both candidates, to a degree, would benefit voters, big time…

      Try him and convict him of treason. Rope is cheap.

      A bit over the top, but it appears his finance ‘notes’ come due in the next 4 years… will creditors go after a sitting President?  Am thinking the Donald’s worst enemy is Trump.

      Unclear as to whether  ‘hanging’ is appropriate for ‘treason’… was under British rule (Nathan Hale)… but Donald Trump is no Nathan Hale… his (Hales’) last words were, in effect, ‘”I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”…

      Someone might say, POTUS’ last words would be of the effect, “I only regret that I squandered my fortune, trying to be like Putin, and  by the way, the “left wing folk “cheated me out of a second term!”

      Both parties hate the “middle”…

  4. Alan Miller

    I didn’t expect to like this article nor agree with it, but actually agree with much of it, and it’s really well written.  Worth reading to learn that the concept has a name:  Brandolini’s Law.

  5. John Hobbs

    Life can be ironically hilarious and just, sometimes.

    Donald and Melania test positive for Covid 19. Donald was quoted as saying, “My doctors say this is the greatest load of virus they’ve ever seen.”  He’s old, he’s obese, the prime candidate for serious complications, huh? Let’s all hope for the best.

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