Before the first presidential debate, I had both hopes and fears. Hopes that Biden would be able to call out Trump’s lies, or at least expose the president’s callous indifference to the terrible suffering Americans have experienced these past few months. Fears that Trump—a far more gifted television performer than he’s usually given credit for—would present a sufficiently plausible counterfeit of competence and leadership to con the tiny, but potentially decisive, sliver of voters who still haven’t made up their minds. (And yes, “Where the f**k have you people been?!” is a totally fair question.)
But both hopes and fears evaporated within minutes of exposure to the actual event—which, as many of my colleagues in the press will tell you, was much, much worse than any prediction. Chris Wallace, who moderated the debate with all the spine of a jellyfish officiating at an amoeba beauty pageant, deserves much of the blame for that.
But as the proceedings crawled agonizingly toward some kind of ending, I realized that beyond Trump’s boorish bullying and incessant interruption, we were also being offered a choice of fantasies. For those of us unsympathetic to the man or his cause, Trump’s fantasy world was more garish: a world of unimpeded male dominance, and barely embarrassed white supremacy, where suburbs full of well-armed white people live under threat from the multicolored, multicultural, cosmopolite hoards. Where shouting wins the argument. Where peaceful protesters are antifa activists, centrist Joe Biden is a secret Sanders sympathizer, and socialism is just around the corner. But also, luckily, where authority always Trumps reality.
It would be easy to laugh—and God knows, Biden simulated laughter often enough. But he, too, was peddling plots in never-never land. Biden’s fantasy was, of course, more appealing—at least to me: a world of reasonable men (my colleague Elie Mystal asked, “Is this really the best white people can do?” Fair point. But also: Is this the best the male sex can do?), bipartisan comity, and avuncular authority, where irreconcilable interests and the darkest chapters of American history can be placated and smoothed over by a wry smile, a rueful shake of the head, and a promise to get both sides together in a room. Or the Oval Office.
Both fantasies seem terribly dangerous to me. The first—the Trumpian fantasy of an Aryan ascendancy—is terrifying because of the world it leads to. The world we increasingly live in—and which, with a 6-3 Supreme Court sanctifying its authority, is likely to endure for decades (if not quite the full tausendjähriges Reich.) But as a strategy for combating all those horrors, Biden’s stubborn faith in institutions, like his appeal to the consciences of Republican senators, seems criminally naive. And terribly dangerous.
Everyone who watched tonight saw Trump, beseeched by Wallace to disavow his white supremacist supporters, instead tell the Proud Boys—a group of armed racists—to “stand back and stand by.” Everyone who watched saw Trump, asked if he would promise to await the official outcome of the election and abide by the result, refuse to do so, launching instead into a foaming-at-the-mouth attack on mail-in ballots, alleging without any evidence that Democrats were preparing to steal the election.
Biden’s most powerful argument of the night came when he said, “If we get the votes, it’s all over. He can’t stay in power.” It would be pretty to think so. But if it comes to a real fight—whether in the courts, the Congress, or in the streets (because right now all of those possibilities seem terrifyingly likely) does anyone really believe the Biden who let Trump interrupt him time and again, who was tenacious in defending his surviving son, but unwilling to point out the contrast between his dead son’s service and the Trump family’s legacy of shirking and evasion, who kept looking at Wallace as if he was the gym teacher about to break up a fight, only to be cruelly disappointed again and again—does anyone really believe that Biden has what it takes to stay in the fight and win it?
Because if you do, please send some of what you’re smoking to me c/o The Nation. Of course, we have to all vote the bastard out. But as tonight made unmistakably plain, that’s just the beginning of this fight. We have to be prepared to out-organize, out-mobilize, and outlast him as well. Anybody who tells you different is fantasizing. Or dreaming.