The first of the 2020 presidential debates is here, five weeks out from Election Day. We know what to expect: Biden and Trump, maskless but socially distanced, will spar on a preselected array of topics. (Although the West Coast is still on fire, climate change will not be one of them.) If the prospect leaves you numb, save for a sickly sense of dread, you’re not alone. Mostly I feel queasy, like I’ve already consumed the bag of Doritos, numerous beers, and the approximate pound of Haribo sour straws I will be clutching this evening with the desperation of a woman on the brink.
It’s hard not to think about the last go-round, when the debates were treated almost like a bizarre spectacle, during which the crass reality star finally had to meet his opponent, the seasoned politician, face-to-face. Trump’s face-offs with Hillary Clinton seemed so outrageous — here was a man so clearly unprepared and bumbling, with such obvious braggadocio and such contempt for the very office he was running to occupy. Watching the debates felt different when it was possible to think, There’s no way he can win behaving like this.
Reactions from the time seem almost quaint, in retrospect. Articles counted how many times Trump interrupted Clinton (37) and how many times he sniffled (58). When he seethingly called his opponent a “nasty woman,” the insult seemed so outlandishly sexist that it became a selling point for Clinton’s side. And there was the time he followed her around the stage, like Lurch, like a cartoon villain, fodder for meme after meme. It all seemed so ridiculous and so offensive — qualities that many people still believed, or hoped, were disqualifying.
This time four years ago, Politico ran a story about how Trump averaged about one falsehood every three minutes. How many falsehoods ago was that? The spectacle Trump created at the debates, that extreme shamelessness verging on parody, now feels undeniably like a kind of cover for his harmful mendacity. Four years later, with a pandemic raging, 200,000 people dead in the U.S., millions unemployed, and no real end in sight, Trump continues to wave away expert consensus, saying things like the virus will “soon disappear.” Even now, nothing sticks. Meanwhile, the debate moderator has indicated that he won’t be fact-checking Trump tonight. Joe Biden’s team says they’ll do so themselves, from a Twitter account with the handle “@Truth.” Yet another feed to scroll through with a pit in your stomach, wondering if the spectacle will ever end.