I remember reading, years ago, about the last two Jews living in Kabul: the final remnants of a once-proud and thriving community that had called the city home for almost one thousand years; the rest displaced, over the course of the various disasters which befell Afghanistan during the 20th century, mostly to Israel or the United States. They were the only ones left: two grouchy, crochety middle-aged men – and they hated each other.
Living together in a crumbling apartment building with no glass in the windows and no running water; doomed to forever spend their days festering alongside each other in mutual resentment. Passively-aggressively praying at the same times from opposite sides of their shared courtyard; hurling obscenities across it long into the night; occasionally denouncing each other to the Taliban. Why were they still there? Who knows – their families had long-since moved to Israel. Why did they hate each other so much? It possibly had something to do with the monetary value of some Torah scrolls the Taliban had pilfered. But reading the story, one was led to suspect: the original cause of the row hardly mattered any more. Their hatred was all they had left now: the only reason to go on their mutual spite.
Anyway. I couldn’t help but think of this story when watching the first of the presidential debates last night – because really the whole thing was like if you’d taken these two guys, flown them to Ohio, and forced them to answer questions about the political direction of the United States. It was not always easy to tell what, if any, vision for the future either of them holds: during the debates, all that really seemed to matter was that this asshole, this clown on the opposite podium, should be denied any part in it.
Biden would say something; Trump would interrupt it. Biden would tell Trump to shut up. Biden would pull Trump up on his record; Trump would make something up about Biden being far-left. Biden would tell Trump to shut up. Wallace would ask Trump to please stop interrupting; Trump would act as if it was all Biden’s fault. Biden would tell Trump to shut up; Trump would interrupt him as he was doing so. Biden would mention something stupid Trump had said; Trump would bring up Biden’s son’s addiction to cocaine. Biden would call Trump a liar, and then tell him to shut up. Irritated squabbling, rambling round and round in circles, for well over an hour.
Beyond the crankiness – though certainly related to it – a palpable sense of age could be felt all over the proceedings, like everything on the debate stage was covered in cobwebs and dust. Biden is 77, Trump is 74. If Trump wins the election, he will have become the oldest-ever president by the time his term ends; if Biden wins it, he’ll be the oldest-ever president at its start. No-one under the age of 70 was involved in any way here: even the moderator Chris Wallace, a Fox News anchor with the warmly prissy manner of a well-to-do cartoon duck, is 72.
Outside the debate stage, the country has been devastated by years of catastrophic economic mismanagement and draconian ‘law and order’ policies which have compounded racial injustice and pushed millions into the most desperate poverty: problems accelerated by the pandemic to the extent that they are now regularly boiling over into riots. And that’s without even mentioning the wildfires and the hurricanes. If democracy in America is going to survive the next decade (if the land America stands on is still going to be inhabitable at the end of the next century), the state desperately needs some sort of renewal: something needs to come along that’s able to remove the basic unfairness rigged into the system; that makes it seem like maybe it is able to serve the interests of anyone other than the super-rich at all. Obviously age is not in itself disqualifying – and Bernie Sanders, the frontrunner for much of the Democratic primary, is even older. But this is a country where the house majority leader is 80; the senate majority leader 78. Less than a fortnight before this debate, millions of Americans’ access to essential healthcare – especially abortion rights – was newly jeopardised by the death of a single 87 year-old woman. If this isn’t gerontocracy, what is?
There had been some speculation, going into the debates, about Biden’s fitness to perform: speculation fuelled, in particular, by Nancy Pelosi’s suggestion that they shouldn’t happen at all. As everyone knows Biden, once a very effective public speaker (even if he did crib his lines from Neil Kinnock), is ‘missing a step’ these days: when he won the nomination, it was taken for granted that Trump would be able to run rings round him. To give this theory its due, it’s certainly true that if you play the video of the debate back at 1.5x speed, it does sound a lot more like Biden is speaking at what used to be his normal pace. But in fairness to Sleepy Joe, he held his own here. He didn’t convince me that he is in any way well-qualified to be the leader of what is still, somehow, the richest and most powerful nation on earth. But he did do a pretty convincing impression of a man recounting, with around 95% accuracy, an effective performance in a debate that he’d delivered some years before. In the bits when he was telling Trump to shut up, and making fun of how much he interrupted, he was even pretty funny.
It was Trump who was the real mess here. Obviously, everyone knows Trump’s a jerk. But there are times when it makes sense that he was the sort of jerk who was cast to play a billionaire on one of the most popular shows on TV: the obnoxious bully who is also the class clown. The Trump who was able to brag that he could shoot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue and still not lose any voters, or declare on social media that “I just got impeached for making a perfect phone call.” A character perfectly matched, for the Republicans, with Hillary last time. But he was on the back foot from the start here, failing utterly to score any zingers off Biden. And so he very quickly got crabby and frustrated, constantly interrupting with meaningless bullshit and trying (but failing) to upset his opponent by bringing up his sons. Some would probably call this behaviour ‘unpresidential’ – and who knows, maybe it is. But that’s not really the problem for Trump, who has always built his appeal on soiling the dignity of the office he now occupies. The problem is that he just sort of ended up looking pathetic.
Probably the worst part of the debate was when Trump was asked by Wallace to condemn the behaviour of white supremacist and far-right militia groups, only to respond by telling the Proud Boys – named by Biden as an example of a group he might condemn – to “stand back and stand by,” an apparently direct incitement to voter intimidation (although he could also simply have forgotten that Wallace in fact told him to tell them to “stand down”). I don’t personally buy the idea that Trump is the sort of ideologically committed white supremacist who actively wants a full-blown race war: but I also don’t think he’d mind one if he saw it as his only way of retaining office. In fact, I don’t think he’d even be capable of understanding why that might be a bad thing at all.
Another low point came towards the end, when both Trump and Biden implied that – given the percentage of ballots which are being delivered by mail – it might be days or even weeks after election night that anyone is able to declare a winner. It already felt as if the 2016 election was with us for at least three more years afterwards, its futile re-litigation ongoing pretty much until that attempt to impeach Trump failed this February (and yes I did just check this, and yes it was this recent, Jesus Christ). Just how long are we going to be stuck living through 2020 for? What if there is never a winner, and everyone in America’s sphere of influence remains trapped forever in the ruins of their republic, as Trump and Biden bicker over them indefinitely, their bodies rendered immortal out of spite? There are still two more of these debates to go. What if one of them just sort of… never stops?