‘They Want to See Blood’: Historians Lament a Car-Crash Debate

Rising rent, inflated house prices and sky-high interest rates have reached a moment of crisis. Record heat is knocking out train service in the northeast. Waves of migrants come from the south. Russia’s madman is threatening to use nukes against Ukraine. Israel continues its deadly assault on Gazan civilians with U.S. weaponry.

Surely, all these will be topics at this year’s first presidential debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump on Thursday. But no. The vast majority of Americans will not be watching to be informed on policy or even to help them decide who will earn their vote. They just want to see the other guy fall.

“We keep using the word debate but it’s not really a debate anymore,” said Luke Nichter, a presidential historian at Chapman University.

“It’s a competitive press conference, simultaneous rallies with a split screen.”

There’s Biden, whose mental acuity has been called into question as public appearances reveal his inability to focus. Then there’s Trump, a convicted criminal facing three more trials who no longer hides his desire to dismantle U.S. democracy.

“Biden wins if he’s competent. Trump wins if he’s sane,” said Chris Edelson, a presidential scholar at American University who said he recently discussed the matter with his 10-year-old son.

The boy ridiculed the entire idea of the debate as “silly” and asked, “What’s the point?”

“I started to explain, then I realized he’s right,” Edelson admitted.

The professor fully expects “haters” merely to “watch what memes come out of it.”

Barbara A. Perry, who teaches the American presidency at the University of Virginia, evoked the nasty inability to look away from a car crash. She also noted that a sizable number of Americans are “double haters,” lamenting the choice between an uninspiring 81-year-old and a criminal 78-year-old.

Those tuning in will be “rubbernecking,” Perry said.

“They’re curious. They want to see if there’s blood. I do think there are people who literally truly haven’t decided. They don’t like either one. They don’t think either one should be president. They truly are looking to see who gets out of the car unscathed.”

“I hate the sight of blood. I don’t go to slasher movies. But why do people go watch slasher movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?”

After a pause, the professor came up with a more apt example. “Or Night of the Living Dead?”

The Daily Beast discussed the matter with half a dozen presidential scholars, who will all watch a whole new kind of debate. Both campaigns forwent the traditional three-event autumn schedule put together by the Commission of Presidential Debates, instead going straight to TV and having CNN host the first contest, three months earlier than any debate since 1960.

There are new rules too: no audience, no candidate interaction with campaign staff during breaks, no talking over each other. CNN will be muting microphones unless it’s a candidate’s turn to speak.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump

“People could get the idea this is canned,” said Willard Sterne Randall, a former investigative journalist who teaches history at Champlain College in Vermont.

“They’ve rehearsed everything they’re going to say. They won’t look at each other or shake hands, or walk around.”

That could reinforce the idea that people will watch for the same reasons they doomscroll through depressing posts on social media—they just can’t look away.

“The term ‘hate watch’ is apt,” Randall said. “There are people who’d like some reassurance about two old men and are watching to see if the guy you don’t like stumbles badly enough. It’s unlike any other presidential debate we’ve had. And it’s anything but a debate. People will show up to see which car they want better—or rather, which one won’t work.”

Gone are the substantive arguments about policy we saw between Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, Al Gore and George W. Bush, Barack Obama and John McCain.

Then, a large slice of undecided voters wanted to know how a politician would govern within the confines of the traditional American presidency.

Now, we have a race between an octogenarian Democrat who essentially wants to maintain the status quo and a septuagenarian Republican felon who faces two more criminal trials for trying to steal the last election and threatens to rule with vengeance and impunity.

“The bar is so low but the stakes are so high,” Perry said.

Scholars are certain we are not about to watch a smart discussion about national security policy, creative approaches to health care or combating global warming. Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University, stressed that this is the most grave fork in the road in U.S. history—and yet most people will be focused on whether either man can even stand for 90 minutes.

“Democracy really is at stake,” Lichtman said. “But most important is how these candidates come off. Will they show they’re sharp, and with it, and capable of carrying out the duties of the presidency?”

The youngest voters watching the oldest candidates are teenagers who were roughly 14 when Trump inspired an insurrectionist mob to attack the U.S. Capitol. Before that, they were in the fifth grade when the Access Hollywood tape was leaked, showing Trump gloating about sexual assault. These late members of Generation Z will finally have a say.

The last time Biden and Trump faced off in a first debate, in 2020, CNN host Dana Bash called it a “shitshow.” Asked by moderator Chris Wallace to denounce violent right-wing supporters, Trump ordered the armed and fascist Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”

The Trump who will walk onto the stage in Atlanta on Thursday has since been impeached a second time, indicted four times, adjudicated a sexual abuser by a federal jury, deemed a bank fraudster by a state judge, and convicted for faking business records by jurors in Manhattan.

That has some questioning whether Biden should have agreed to debate at all.

“You don’t debate when you’re ahead,” Nichter said. “You debate when you’re behind. Biden needs to win more. He should be further ahead than he is.”

Edelson said: “The very act of being on that stage normalizes Trump. He looks like a candidate by definition because he’s on the stage with Biden. People will say, ‘He can’t really be that bad. He’s standing up there, right?’”

This post was originally published on Daily Beast

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