Before the first debate

I want to say that, on the eve of the first presidential debate, there’s a lot at stake.

Briefly, a few words on what is not at stake. Regardless of who wins, we’ve already lost a lot. We have a media that appears to favor entertainment and false equivalence at the cost of truth, and at the cost of normalizing truly radical and unqualified figures. We have a deeply divided populace, where possibly a majority of the population endorses the banning of Muslims from entering the country while only 38% of the country personally knows a Muslim. 59% of Republican primary voters think the President of the last 7.5 years is a Muslim. And a major party candidate has already said that if he loses, it will be due to widespread voter fraud, diminishing confidence in our already fragile system.

Meanwhile liberals proudly claim that they don’t know any Trump supporters, as if being in a bubble were a badge of honor. We don’t talk to each other. We separate increasingly on class, education and religion while ignoring facts that fly against our own narratives.  We are in deep shit, regardless of where this debate and this election ultimately go. That’s what we have already lost.

Then what’s at stake in the debate and in the remainder of the campaign? Alot. We could salvage some decency in our discourse and in our media coverage, and importantly, we could salvage the direction of the country.

It’s common to criticize the media’s role in enabling Trump, and to call out Trump’s blatant lies (though not common enough), but we’ve done precious little to actually understand how he would govern, which should be a central question right now. I am disheartened by those who say the constitution is “robust” and that the president will not be able to do much, and so we shouldn’t worry. These are the people who often argue things will be “OK.” I don’t know what OK means, really. We won’t cease to exist, probably (more on that later). But a lot of people might suffer, and the direction of the country would be drastically altered (for the worse). Why should the threshold for panic and alarm about the election be existence itself being threatened?

There was the news about Trump’s campaign possibly promising or offering a Supreme Court nomination to Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist who funded the lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker. The lawyer in the Gawker case representing Hulk Hogan has since gone on to threaten action against New York Magazine for exposing dirt on Roger Ailes’ years of sexual harassment as head of Fox News. And there’s Donald Trump’s own litigious nature (including barring the Washington Post from press conferences). Does that not meet the threshold for panic and alarm? At what point do we recognize that the constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is (and it says things often at a considerable lag), and that claims of its robustness mean nothing if we do not fight clear attacks on it standing up?

The debate, then, can shed light on how Trump would actually govern. Evan Osnos wrote a detailed look at how a Trump administration might look like. Among other things, he notes that the research shows that candidates achieved around 70% of their campaign promises. There is also that he has the power to name some four thousand appointees in all parts of the government.  Here are some other highlights.

On Day One:

Trump aides are organizing what one Republican close to the campaign calls the First Day Project. “Trump spends several hours signing papers—and erases the Obama Presidency,” he said. Stephen Moore, an official campaign adviser who is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, explained, “We want to identify maybe twenty-five executive orders that Trump could sign literally the first day in office.”

On Judicial and Congressional Checks:

[T]he founders gave Congress the power to make laws, and the Supreme Court the final word on the Constitution [. . .] but during the Cold War the prospect of sudden nuclear attack further consolidated authority in the White House. “These checks are not gone completely, but they’re much weaker than I think most people assume,” Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago, said. “Congress has delegated a great deal of power to the President, Presidents have claimed power under the Constitution, and Congress has acquiesced.” The courts, Posner added, are slow. “If you have a President who is moving very quickly, the judiciary can’t do much. A recent example of this would be the war on terror. The judiciary put constraints on President Bush—but it took a very long time.”

There was that little old warrantless surveillance program by George W. Bush that lasted until 2015. A very robust program, it seemed.

We might also want to be a little worried about our existence. Evan Osnos also discusses just how easy it would be for a president to potentially authorize a nuclear attack (Nixon once faked it, to near disastrous results).

A year and a half ago, people didn’t think Trump could win the Republican primary. They thought it was crazy. Now it has come to pass. Now people think it’s crazy that Trump could win the presidency, and that he could do something as radical as appoint Peter Thiel to the Supreme Court, or do the things he has actually said he would do. We think these things are so crazy they aren’t worth giving another thought. Things have a habit of happening though.

So this is all at stake at the debate. As important as what happens at the debate, is what happens after. Does the media immediately shift into body language territory (who was calm? Shrill? “Presidential”?) and away from factual substance?

Tony Schwartz, the repentant ghostwriter of Art of the Deal, said the following in an interview with the New York Times on what he thinks should happen, and what Hillary Clinton ought to do:

“I’d be very calm, direct, and unflappable, but relentless, I mean relentless, over 90 minutes, in calling out every time a lie came out of his mouth [. . .] to demonstrate the thinness of his knowledge, his inability to answer any question beyond a sentence or two without repeating himself.”

“What I would hope is that [Hillary Clinton] doesn’t go the same route she did with Matt Lauer when he started coming at her relentlessly, which was to revert to her knowledge, to revert to her ability to produce a hundred facts in a short period of time, [. . .] Because this debate is going to turn not a bit on the issues. It’s going to turn on emotion, it’s going to turn on which candidate makes all of us feel safer and which candidate makes us feel less safe. And the one who wins that contest wins the debate — and probably wins the election.”

 

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