Early in his presidency, or perhaps just before it, a video circulated of Donald Trump grappling with an older man on the edge of a wrestling ring. Trump coathangered the man and, when they were both on the ground, pretended to punch him over and over in the face. Later, he dragged him into the ring and with clippers and then a razor shaved him bald, the foam falling from the man’s scalp and onto the shoulders of his suit.
It was disturbing to watch, not for the simulated violence but for the joy Trump took in the make-believe. His face glowed with machismo, as if he were unaware that it was all pretend – that the reality he was in, the one where this bloated, ill-fitting man was a great fighter, had been entirely constructed. This week’s presidential debate had the same feel but with lower production values.
Trump’s great power is that he is completely unencumbered by the space between what is real and what is not. Sometimes this looks like the absence of shame, but it is more than that. His presidency is a continuous act of invention. Lies are inexhaustible and so the power he draws on will never run out.
People described feeling nauseated as they watched the debate. This was the sick feeling that comes from a loss of balance – from seeing the horizon line of what is true and real being bent in front of you. The nausea was not just at Trump’s scrabbling braggadocio but also at Joe Biden’s meek and sniggering ripostes.
Here on stage were two men who would lead the free world, neither of them with any worthy claim to it. Here were two jelly wrestlers at closing time, but without the integrity of the sport.
Debate under Trump has acquired a special shapelessness. Nothing has any great meaning or particular import, and so there are no priorities by which to be guided. Biden tried to correct this, but when he did he had nothing to say.
It is a cliché to note that democracy is in crisis, but it is. Without truth, or some cursory understanding of it, democracy cannot properly function. Trump knows this and he has staked on it his re-election.
Serious thinkers are now speculating on what happens if Trump does not accept defeat – how he might exploit uncertainties in the United States constitution, or other loopholes, to deny his loss. This would plunge the country into chaos. It is not clear how it would be resolved.
The argument might be excessively optimistic, however. There is still a chance he will win outright. In the same way that you can’t argue with a drunk, you can’t debate Donald Trump. He can will half a country into his own unreality and the best Biden can do is to call him a clown.
For Trump and his America the Californian fires are about smoking and coronavirus is about Big Ten football. Insulin is as cheap as water. In a circus such as this, a clown can lead the country – and pointing out that he is one doesn’t change a thing.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2020 as "Clown duels".
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