etermined to avoid the first debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, I gave up not even 20 minutes after the spectacle began.
Friends were texting about a train wreck, and social media was ablaze. Work could wait. I flipped on the debate in time to hear Biden tell the president of the United States, “Will you shut up, man?”
Amazingly, that wasn’t the night’s low point. That came about 20 minutes later, when Chris Wallace, the Fox News anchor turned overwhelmed crossing guard, beseeched Trump to denounce white supremacists and militia groups—a denunciation Trump then refused to make.
Said the president: “Give me a name, go ahead, who do you want me to condemn?”
Wallace again requested a condemnation of right-wing militias. To which Trump replied, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”
Then he reverted to the left-wing nutjobs who also represent a pox on this country.
“But I’ll tell you what,” said Trump, “somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem, this is a left wing.”
At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s a tragic state of affairs in America when our elected leaders can’t condemn lunatics who sow dissension and violence on either side of the political aisle.
I’m amazed such a topic is actually worth debating, given that any sane person can condemn violent extremism in, gee, less than 60 words. Let me prove it.
“I see little difference between extremists like the Proud Boys and the chaos agents known as Antifa, or between neo-Nazis and violent anarchists on the extreme left. They wear different clothes, use different symbols, but make no mistake: They’re all proponents of hatred. I condemn these scumbags and their anti-American tactics in no uncertain terms. Stand down. Go away.”
There you go—59 words.
My attention wandered until I heard raised voices and surging anger: A debate about the future of America had turned into two grumpy old men yelling at each other over whether one guy’s son made a fortune in the Ukraine.
I’ve witnessed arguments like this before. I actually thought Biden might scream at Trump to get off his lawn or offer to cross the stage and whip his ass.
That was when a strange thing happened.
It took more than 20,200 days, during which I’ve lived through Vietnam, Watergate, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Iraq War debacle, 9/11, recessions and a murderous pandemic.
For the first time, I felt ashamed to be an American. Before, American train wrecks moved me to anger or a form of grim determination: anger at the actors or a rising conviction that an injustice, an atrocity, demanded a fix. Not this time.
This time I felt the humiliation that comes with knowing you have done or witnessed something dishonorable, unforgivable, ridiculous in the extreme.
I had no anger left in me for Trump or Biden or their partisan cheering sections, who spent the days after the debate engaged in yet another game of “Well, he started it!”
What happened in Cleveland that night was the culmination of everything wrong with our politics and culture:
The rudeness, lying, disrespect, threats, the inability to articulate a single actionable solution for what ails this country, or even to condemn what is plainly evil.
Two centuries ago, the French philosopher Joseph de Maistre observed: “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” That was never more true than during Trump-Biden I, where two cranks engaged in a mortifying shouting contest and America was the loser.