Reflections on the Horror of the Second Presidential Debate

Reflections on the Horror of the Second Presidential Debate

Last night was a singular low point within a sea of low points for our society. It is absolutely shameful and so terribly sad. It is also deeply insulting that this is what we are given as being worthy of the highest office in our government. And make no mistake. When we move past this Trump spectacle in November, the work is just starting.

Donald Trump has not appeared in a vacuum. He is a uniquely vile, angry, narcissistic, and menacing man. But he only makes sense within the context of a society that has been inundated for years with nonsense that has been treated as reasonable. Where we have been bombarded with loud and shocking messages about why we should all be afraid and suspicious. Where we have been sold the notion that the only way that we can be ‘serious’ about the problems with which we are dealing is to get ‘tougher’, where ‘being serious’ effectively translates to increasing degrees of the threat and use of violence (in one form or another).

The implications of a society that has been dazzled into confusion and fear and then told, ‘such times call for extreme measures’ should not be a surprise. It takes a focused commitment within this environment to remain steadfast in the defense of what it is that actually does make us great. But we are anxious, and tired, and too busy, and the messages just keep coming and telling us that slipping the standards a bit further toward the previously unthinkable is okay.

I sincerely wish that we stood up to this earlier. That our ‘national character’ had been as deeply embedded as I grew up believing it was. That the ugly sides of our culture were as fringe as I thought they were. That we could bring back the lives that have been lost and shattered as we have allowed our country to flail about and angrily lash out at ‘enemies’ foreign and domestic whom we have convinced ourselves are existential threats.

Of the many surreal moments last night in which this was glaringly apparent, one was particularly poignant for me. If not a new low itself, it was acutely representative of the extent to which we have pushed the limits of acceptability in our political discourse. That was when Donald Trump threatened to prosecute and put Hillary Clinton in jail, should he become president.

To provide some context on why I felt this moment so deeply, I am a professor of international relations. Who knows how many lectures I have given, explaining the ‘democratic peace’ idea that democracies do not fight wars against one another. While the empirical evidence for this being true over the past two hundred years is substantial, there have been different arguments put forth as to why this might be the case.

One of these arguments is that there are basic norms that are deeply ingrained within the domestic process through which political conflict is resolved in mature democracies. Elections and institutionalized processes through which contests over leadership and policy are decided occur within a context in which both sides agree to abide by the outcome. This is because the process is recognized as regular and legitimate.

In explaining this, a standard line of mine over the years has been that “when an election is decided in a mature democracy, the loser does not have to fear for his or her security. Indeed, they are free to come back and compete again.” I would add in a connection to some election that was ongoing or recent to add a couple of faces of democratic leaders to personalize it. The effectiveness of this line was always that when said well, it got a chuckle and I hoped, stuck.

Of course the loser is not going to get killed or thrown in prison! And we all know that that does happen in other types of systems with some regularity. But not in a functional democracy! Right?

So when in the middle of a debate between the two major parties’ nominees for the presidency of the United States of America, one threatened to throw the other in jail if he won, it was a very loud addition to the cacophony of alarms that we should all be hearing.

This spectacle may be entertaining to watch. The things that are being said may scratch a psychic itch. It may seem only marginally ugly, compared to what we have all been subjected to for so long and have steadily normalized. But it is a dangerous game that we are playing.

We have to stop this. This is our fascist moment, and we must reject it. This is not who we are. Remember? This is not who we are!

We must reject Donald Trump. But more than that, we must reject our slide into being the type of country that our national mythology is based upon opposing.

That is available to us. It is available to us because we decide what the boundaries are, within which we interact with one another. We do that in the way that we relate to one another at the individual and community level. We do that in deciding whom and what we watch or listen to in politics, entertainment, and journalism. And we do that in the way that we think about addressing how best we prepare our society to navigate a period of intense change.

We can continue to operate from a place of fear. We can continue to ease the restrictions of fact and logic. We can continue to allow ourselves to be pulled along a trajectory that inevitably leads to escalating alienation, anger, and violence. But absolutely none of the things that we are afraid of will be resolved that way.

It is beyond time that we stop this, collect ourselves, and begin to redirect the course that we are on.

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