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.
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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