Political debates are hours of vacuous, reductive mouth breathing punctuated by sudden, thrilling spectacle with the potential to transform our collective consciousness.
I love them and I hate them. Common practice is for me to spend the night rolling my eyes and opining about the decline of substantive conversation in America, occasionally being driven out of the room to refill my drink by the utter inanity of it all, whilst all the time keeping my eyes and ears open for those singular, electrifying moments of truth and drama.
One of those moments that I will always remember was during the very first GOP primary debate of the 2016 race, and it involved one Donald Trump.
The date was August 6, 2015. The Fox News crowd was raucous, and Trump had already refused to back down over his sexist comments about women, his racist comments about immigrants, and his unorthodox policy positions. But it was when moderator Bret Baier came to the subject of political donations that the debate transformed - and with it the race for president:
Baier: “You said recently, quote ‘when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.’
Tump: “You better believe it…”
I remember laughing out loud, stunned, transfixed. Who was this guy who just got up there and copped to the whole game? Standard politician practice would have been to dissemble and dodge. This was clearly not that.
A moment later, after some joking around, Trump got to a deadly-serious point that no one else had, until that moment, been willing to voice out loud:
I was a businessman. When they call, I give.
With those words, this very entertaining reality TV star pulled back the curtain on something everyone knew in the back of their minds but no one - at least no one on a nationally-televised debate stage - had been willing to say.
I recall this episode not to suggest I am sympathetic to Trump or really even his supporters. I do it in an effort to suss out exactly what separates those long hours of tedious vacuousness from the moments of exhilarating spectacle.
Searching for The Authentic
In today’s media environment, in our current moment of personal branding, our always-on search for authenticity personified, our desperate need to find some firm ground on which to place our belief system, we are drawn to someone who promises to just be themselves. I’ve written before that that’s what I think is so intoxicating about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
When we say someone tells it like it is, what we mean is that they tell it exactly how they see it. They don’t filter for the media, or for sensitive souls, or for small thinkers, or a punditry class, or for their political opponents. Telling it like it is isn’t a claim to truth - it’s a claim to authenticity.
Which is part of what makes debates tough for Democrats. In a party as diverse as theirs, they always have to be speaking to multiple groups (Republicans are speaking to a much more homogenous group of people).
You know those one-minute statements at the beginning of each debate? I can’t think of a worse way to introduce candidates to people than to hear their rehearsed, faux-authentic stories about their lives or those of voters they’ve met. All it tells us is fake, fake, fake: I am here to perform for you, dear television viewer at home.
Yes, the format sucks. That’s a given.
Still, the great challenge for Democrats in this election is to figure out how to speak truths that we all know but are not saying while somehow navigating the wrath of the various Democratic constituencies. They could start by zeroing in on Trump himself. It really baffles me that Democrats can spend so much time eating their own when most of them agree they’d rather beat Trump than have a candidate with whom they agree on everything.
Trump’s Super Power
One of Trump’s not-so-secret super powers isn’t just his perceived authenticity; it’s his complete and utter lack of shame. He is who he is, and he rarely apologizes for that. Even when Trump is shown to be a hypocritical fraud, he is as likely to own that as to disavow: I was a con-man for myself, and now I’m going to be a con-man for you. Hey, I guess some voters are all about that message.
But it’s an almost impossible super power to counter, because, well… those Democrats running for president do have shame, very much so. And it’s difficult to argue against such a person. Imagine a debate between Trump and the future Democratic nominee:
Future nominee: The president is lying!
Trump: No I’m not, you are.
Future nominee: [Throws hands in the air in frustration]
Shame can be good and right and important. Shame has helped hold societies and civilizations together for millennia. Shame highlights and points out what the collective consciousness feels the boundaries of their relationships with each other ought to be.
So, how do you run against someone with no shame, when you are intent on keeping your own? I will be looking for the candidate who figures that out.
As for the Democratic debates: there were no transcendent, electrifying moments of television the past two nights, at least none that I saw. If you were for or against a certain candidate before the debates, you’re likely to still be in the same place afterward. As Trump often tells reporters trying to pin him down on a decision he hasn’t yet made, “We’ll just have to wait and see what happens…”
After all, a U.S. presidential election is quite possibly the world’s most consequential reality TV show. And Trump knows how to produce it.