This is the era of no good choices. Take schooling, for example. Keeping children home robs them of education and socialization. It scars their futures, steals their joys. It makes it impossible for their parents to work, or even to rest. But sending them to school endangers their health, and that of their teachers and their families. The argument is so heated because the choices are all bad, at least by the standards of the lives we used to lead. We battle like there is a good answer, like we will discover one side is right and the other is wrong. But we won’t. There is no answer. Whatever we pick, it will be horrible.
Everything is like that right now. Do you visit your parents, let them see their grandchild? How do you weigh the risk of contagion against the risk of isolation? If they’re sick, does that make visiting them more dangerous, or more necessary? How about your friends? What is the cost to your child of growing up without community, without other hands to take care of them, without other adults they’re allowed to hug, to play with? Do we reopen restaurants? If they do reopen, do we go to them? The risks are terrible, but so is the thought of losing an entire industry, of seeing all those dreams die, all those futures shatter. As the Senate dithers, these decisions are being left to us, and it is tearing us apart.
In America, our ideological conflicts are often understood as the tension between individual freedoms and collective actions. The failure of our pandemic response policy exposes the falseness of that frame. In the absence of effective state action, we, as individuals, find ourselves in prisons of risk, our every movement stalked by disease. We are anything but free; our only liberty is to choose among a menu of awful options. And faced with terrible choices, we are turning on each other, polarizing against one another. YouTube conspiracies and social media shaming are becoming our salves, the way we wrest a modicum of individual control over a crisis that has overwhelmed us as a collective.
We’ve long passed the point at which everyone should understand in no uncertain terms that Trump is an authoritarian, racist, white supremacist (among other things). Hell, this is what many of his supporters like about him. But it should also be clear to his supporters, all of his supporters (especially the ones who hold their nose and support him because of Christian values or fiscal policy or abortion), that by voting for this man knowing what we all clearly know about him, you are a white supremacist. Period. I understand the perfect candidate doesn’t exist and that our system of voting requires us to compromise some of our values in order to support progress towards bigger goals, but good luck explaining that you voted for an actual white supremacist to your grandchildren someday (if you can stomach telling them the truth). Some values cannot be compromised.
The reason last night’s debate was so terrible to watch is that Trump is an awful, irredeemable person who wrecks everything he touches, and that was clear on Tuesday night.
We didn’t learn anything new about Trump at the debate, because there is nothing new to learn. He is the same incoherent, belligerent, corrupt, racist asshole he’s always been. Be outraged if you want, but it’s not a surprise. Let him continue to self-immolate.
What we did learn is that Joe Biden is a decent guy who can stand there listening to Trump bluster and lie, brush it off for the offensive nonsense that it is, and then speak to the audience about actual issues that affect real people.
So if the debate made you feel angry, donate some money to Biden/Harris, or your local Democratic candidates for office, or to any of the many great Democrats up and down the ticket all across the country. Take down your “Any Functioning Adult” yard sign and put one up for actual candidates. Register folks to vote. Phone or textbank for a candidate. You’re not powerless.
Beyond all the individual offenses one of the underrated sub-themes of anti-Trumpism is exhaustion. One of the deepest traumas of living in the home of an abuser stems not from the outbursts of physical violence, verbal abuse or manipulation but the accumulated stress of ambient tension, uncertainty, the reflexive, unshakeable hyper-vigilance. It is exhausting in a profound way. Trump is exhausting – I suspect even for some who share his dark values. This was 90 minutes jam-packed with everything that makes Trump exhausting. Living with an abuser means being trapped in close quarters with the abuse, being unable to run. In a month voters get the chance to walk away.
In the end, though, this debate was a success. It provided voters accurate impressions of these two men. Trump was about as Trumpy as he could be. He did not take responsibility for a pandemic response that has led to tens of thousands of preventable deaths. He could not rise above his egotistical pettiness and brutal psychopathy. Yet again, he proved he has no capacity to heal or help a nation experiencing a horrific plague and other crises. Though Biden stumbled through some answers and muffed a few opportunities to lay Trump low, he came across as a competent fellow who generally wanted to talk about issues in a productive manner. Nothing too exciting. Nothing too wild. But if Biden is correct, if the election this year is about the soul of the nation, then this debate highlighted that the choice is a damn clear one between a conventional, normy soul and one that is dark and ugly. And that’s a win for Biden.
The fact that pundits may have a tough time concocting original commentary is not, in itself, the country’s biggest problem. But at its best, the work of people who write and talk and make art about politics is valuable because it helps other members of society make sense of their shared world. If that work loses depth or relevance, democratic culture in the United States diminishes, and people who otherwise would be engaged with politics turn their attention elsewhere.
It’s not that nothing is happening. With Election Day only a month away, Trump has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power and is doing his best to cast doubt on the integrity of the vote, calling mail-in ballots “a whole big scam.” He is now poised to fill his third seat on the Supreme Court following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a victory that would tilt the politics of the Court rightward for a generation. Throughout his presidency, he has arguably committed dozens of impeachable offenses during his time in office, from firing FBI Director James Comey and attempting to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller to promising pardons to Department of Homeland Security officials if they turned away asylum applicants at the border to doling out a commutation to his associate Roger Stone, seemingly as a reward for Stone’s refusal to testify against Trump during the Russia investigation.
But while these scandals are important, they also are in some ways the same story: The president is a greedy racist and misogynist who does not understand his job.
“Here’s the dirty secret of all of these data-analytics solutions,” a former Pentagon research manager told me. “They all claim to take these disparate data sources and put them together and then discover these amazing correlations between variables. But the problem is that all of these data sets are terrible. They’re dirty.” Many types of information, after all, are gathered and processed by humans. It may be entered inconsistently or provided in wildly different formats or riddled with inaccuracies. It’s messy, like the real world it reflects and records, and it doesn’t always fit into software with any sort of mathematical precision.
When I saw a recent demonstration of Palantir software, it became clear that this dirty secret isn’t very secret. The interface struck me as user friendly, something anyone with basic computer literacy could figure out. Want to know how many aircraft are available for a specific mission and how long it will take them to get to their destination? With a simple query, Palantir can tell you. Then I was shown a data set on military personnel, which had to be “cleaned up” to make it usable on Palantir. It wasn’t only a magic code doing the cleanup; it was human beings — and even locating someone who could explain what needed to be done had proven time consuming. “It took many calls to find a subject-matter expert,” one person involved told me.
It sounded a lot like Rooms Full of People.
The Leader of the Free World owes hundreds of millions of dollars, and we have no idea to whom. He is personally on the hook for these debts; the debts will soon have to be repaid; and given the state of his finances, it’s far from clear how Trump will meet his obligations.
If you or I had these kinds of financial liabilities, we wouldn’t even be approved for a security clearance, because the security risks would be seen as far too great. And yet, Donald Trump has these liabilities right now — and he’s headed into a re-election fight.
Much has been made in recent years about Trump wanting to stay in power in order to avoid possible prosecutions and to run out the clock on assorted statutes of limitations. But this new angle is arguably even more significant: the Republican may also be desperate to remain in office as a way of staving off his unidentified creditors who will soon expect payment on the president’s considerable debts.
Indeed, it’s hardly unreasonable to think Trump holding onto power might be one of the few options he has remaining to prevent his creditors from seizing his personal assets.
I’ll also add that I have read some commentary suggesting that there’s not really all that much there there—Trump has talked endlessly about how much he loves debt and has shown no shame about declaring bankruptcy and stiffing his creditors before, so these mystery men he owes money to have no more hold over him than anyone else.
I’d suggest the difference here is that, unlike most of his previous debt, he has personally guaranteed these loans. If he is unable to pay them back when they come due (NARRATOR: He will not be able to pay them back when they come due), it is not a case where he can cut ties with the business and run. They are coming after him personally.
How do you stop people from talking about your failed pandemic policies, tapes showing that you lied to the American people, an economy in trouble, and polls showing the Republicans are likely to lose their Senate majority?
You create a fiction: You tell the world that you are not losing, the other side is cheating, and you will not allow it. When Trump says something like, “we can throw away the ballots and avoid having to transfer power,” he hijacks the national conversation: Everyone must now discuss whether Trump can get rid of ballots (he can’t) and whether the state governments and the courts will work in tandem to overturn an election and install Trump as a dictator (highly unlikely).
People become convinced that Trump absolutely can pull it off. Thus Trump creates a fantasy world in which he will retain power. His critics inadvertently lend credence to the fantasy by acting as if it is true.