The first Trump-Biden debate marks the end of an era

Traditional tools of persuasion – such as the presidential debate – no longer work in a polarised climate

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Tuesday night's first presidential debate marked the end of an era. It was an era that brought the outrageousness of talk radio and heavily packaged news media glitz into the American political arena.

It was an era in which the sound bite came to dominate. As recently as 1968, the average answer on a news programme was 43 seconds. Today it is down to nine seconds. That’s just enough time for a candidate to say: “I have a plan for dealing with Covid. Vote for me!”

The limits of this kind of political spectacle and political discourse have long been known, but now the ritual looks stale as did the participants.

Two men in their 70s and a moderator who is also in his 70s (but looks young for his age) staged a “debate”.  All of these elderly gentlemen have made the bulk of their careers in the era of sound bites and talk radio. They offered nothing new to voters.

Not a mind in America will have been changed by what they saw. Although many will be in despair at the talking over, interrupting, and sheer bad manners that characterised the evening.

Donald Trump sounded like his Twitter feed, alternating between aggrievement and accusation. He could have been any right-wing talk radio host in America shouting into the microphone. Joe Biden tried to find a balance between looking presidential (something the pundits traditionally judge candidates on in these quadrennial charades) and fighting back.

Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News, whose father was one of the most fearsome political interviewers of television’s Golden Age, tried to ride herd on the discussion but finally had to give up. Fifty minutes in, Mr Wallace started interrupting loudly, in the hopes of regaining control: “Why should I be any different than the two of you?”

Mr Trump whined he (Mr Biden) has been interrupting. Mr Wallace said pointedly: “Less than you.”

Did anyone hear that? Probably not.

Against the right-wing talk radio ranting, Mr Biden tried to get off some well-rehearsed zingers. Talking about Mr Trump's lamentable record on Covid-19 – 200,000 Americans have died, far more than in any other country – Mr Biden recalled the President's comments about the death toll: "It is what it is." Then the Democrat added: "It is what it is because you are who you are."

The 90 minutes was mostly noise but there were two clear moments of signal. The first came a little over an hour into the “debate” when Mr Wallace asked: “Are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say they need to stand down and not add to violence in a number of these cities?”

“Which groups,” Mr Trump demanded.

He went on, almost everything I see is from the left wing not the right wing. Mr Wallace persisted.

“Who?” Mr Trump asked again. The Proud Boys, Mr Wallace answered. Mr Trump took a second, then said to the Proud Boys: “Stand back and stand by.” Within minutes, the well-armed group, one of several who have been in the streets threatening demonstrators during the season of unrest since the murder of George Floyd, put up a meme with that quote.

The other bit of signal amid the noise was the President’s repeated claim that there would be widespread fraud because of the anticipated record mail-in vote. Mr Trump was laying out his case for not accepting the result of the election.

These two clear signals herald the new era in American politics. First, no president in modern times has ever spoken directly to vigilantes or given a sense that they are a force he is willing to engage with and even command.

And make no mistake, the Proud Boys and other groups are not militias. Militia implies a governmental role. The Second Amendment, America’s charter for gun ownership and written in the days before the country had a standing army, says “a well-regulated militia, being necessary”. But these groups are not regulated. They are vigilantes looking to provoke a fight, maybe even a civil war.

Second, no president has ever trashed the election process so comprehensively in advance of polling day.

“Who won, who lost?” is not the question this year. Minds are made up. For many their minds were made up on November 9, 2016, the morning after last Election Day. Very little that has happened since has changed voting intentions.

In the snap polling that is part of the ritual of these debates, CNN found 60 per cent of viewers thought Mr Biden had won. That seems right to me. Mr Trump supporters represent around 40 per cent of the electorate. They are unswayable. They will never forsake their guy.

That is why I say we are entering a new era. The traditional tools of persuasion no longer work. Slogans masquerading as a governing philosophy are outmoded. All people can do is shout them at their opponents and hope their core supporters stay motivated enough to vote.

But when the President of the United States questions the vote’s legitimacy in advance, does this also herald a new era, one in which democracy itself is discarded?

Michael Goldfarb is the host of the First Rough Draft of History podcast