Embrace the Thunderdome

The reaction of media commentators to the first of the presidential debates between President Trump and former Vice-President Biden has been that of performative pearl-clutching because it did not meet their expectations of how two men vying for the most powerful job in the world should conduct themselves. 

  • Ben Shapiro tweeted “I literally have no idea who won this debate. I just know we all lost.”  
  • CNN’s Jake Tapper said his friend’s 6th grade daughter “burst into tears, had to run to bed” because she was “so appalled by Trump” during the debate. 
  • CNN’s Dana Bash “That was a shitshow.”
  • Bob Woodward “I don’t want to overstate this, but he is assassinating the Presidency.”
  • Mika Brzezinski published an op-ed calling for the cancellation of all remaining debates because she thinks they are a “danger to our democracy.”

What the pundits are really upset over is that the true nature and stakes of the presidency were revealed in last week’s cage match. What they term “presidential” is a façade, constructed by public relations men in the era of modern media, reinforced by Hollywood programming like “The West Wing” and “House of Cards.” The expectation is that the true personality of the president must always be behind the veil of image. And with that understanding, the debates were supposed to be a coronation ceremony for Vice President Biden.

Biden was supposed to show up and appear presidential. President Trump could be expected to attack, but would be hamstrung in the extent of his attacks by the demands of seriousness and decorum that he would need to maintain to stake his own claim to being viewed as presidential, not to mention the rules of the format and the presence of a third-party journalist to enforce them.

This primacy of image over substance reminds me of a debate that actually ended up posing a grave threat to our democracy. That debate was the first televised debate in American political history. It pitted another media darling, Senator John F. Kennedy, against Vice-President Richard Nixon. Nixon had a five-o-clock shadow, had recently recovered from a hospital visit, refused makeup, and wore a suit that happened to be the same color as the background. Kennedy on the other hand was rested and healthy, freshly shaven, was made-up for television, and wore a dark suit that set him in sharp contrast with the background. After a gentlemanly and cordial exchange on the issues, he was declared the winner by an overwhelming majority of Americans who saw the debate on television. Nixon, however, was considered the winner by a wide majority of those who listened to the debate on the radio. 

Despite the differences in image, Nixon could have ended Kennedy in that debate. He had the gut instincts and mental quickness to expose Kennedy’s inexperience and vulnerability to real opposition and bullying. But Nixon was restrained by the norms of his day, and Kennedy eked out a narrow victory in that election.

The consequences of this polite and civil debate’s failure to show how a potential president holds up under attack would be brought into sharp relief the following year, at President Kennedy’s June 4, 1961 summit with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. President Kennedy had suggested the meeting earlier in the year, wanting to demonstrate his seriousness as president to Khrushchev; and assumed that his characteristic charm and charisma, which had worked so well on American elites and journalists, would similarly bend the Soviet premier to his way of thinking. The meeting was a disaster. 

The first day of the summit was a six-hour long beatdown. Walking away, JFK told a New York Times reporter “That was the worst thing in my life. He savaged me.” Khrushchev on the other hand left the summit knowing that unlike his predecessor, President Eisenhower, the inexperienced and immature Kennedy was emotional and could be pushed around. Khrushchev abandoned his idea of pursuing a thaw in relations, and instead opportunistically pushed forward with aggressive actions. Two months later he commenced construction of the Berlin Wall, and the following year he deployed nuclear missiles to Cuba, precipitating a crisis that led us to the very edge of nuclear holocaust. 

Rather than clawing to regain the vestiges of an archaic political campaign culture, the American people should embrace the Thunderdome. Our political campaign culture should be oriented towards filtering out weak leaders. Campaign season should stress test the candidates, separating the wheat from the chaff. The problem revealed in this debate was not that the discourse had become too coarse and uncivil, it was that a major party had nominated a candidate whose deficiencies had managed to stay hidden from public view until this late stage in the campaign. 

Democrats failed to foresee the extent to which their nominee could be pushed around because they have kept him away from adversity. No press conferences, no tough interviews, no contact with any voter who isn’t a pre-screened partisan Democrat. The only hit he’s ever had to handle came when his own vice-presidential candidate accused him of racism in a primary debate—and he just stood there silently. 

But while our media and elite may handle Joe with kid gloves, I can assure you that our geopolitical opponents will not be so kind. You may not like President Trump’s manners or bullying, but on the world stage he’s not going to let our country get pushed around. Gone are the days when the Obama-Biden administration would give away everything in negotiations and come back empty handed. From trade to peace deals to the return of hostages, we have made far too much progress in foreign affairs over the last four years to return to weakness.  

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