The Epistemological Election

Presidential Debate Roundup

Update: Well, October is going to be interesting. As this newsletter goes out, we got the news that Donald and Melania Trump have tested positive for coronavirus, a development that seems logically inevitable. This could completely transform the presidential contest or it could have no effect whatsoever, depending on the severity of the president’s symptoms. In the meantime, here is my analysis of what we learned from Tuesday’s debate.—RWT

The best line of Tuesday’s presidential debate came at the end of the first segment, when moderator Chris Wallace gamely attempted to move on: “We have ended the segment. We’re going to move on to the second segment.” Joe Biden deadpanned, “That was really a productive segment, wasn’t it?”

He didn’t need to tell anyone he was being sarcastic. This debate is widely accepted by all observers as a complete disaster and a national humiliation. Jake Tapper summed it up as “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.”

It was absurd and unedifying, giving us little to no idea of the policies of either candidate and the case they have to make for those policies.

Yet this in itself is clarifying.

The Epistemological Election

Just as there is no disagreement about this debate being the worst in living memory, there is no real disagreement over whose fault that is. Tapper puts it this way: “It’s primarily because of President Trump, who spent the entire time interrupting, not abiding by the rules that he agreed to, lying, maliciously attacking the son of the vice president.” Trump’s own people are calling him feral.

This is partly because he lost. His shouting, hectoring, constantly interrupting style went over with voters like a lead balloon. Some of Trump’s supporters are now saying, “He needs to show a little more of his charm and humor” in the next debate. So all Trump has to do is to become a completely different person between now and October 15.

As I’ve argued elsewhere (and as I discussed with George Will earlier in the week), there is a substance to Donald Trump’s style. The substance of this awful debate was epistemological.

Trump apparently decided he couldn’t win the debate using reason and persuasion, so instead he just blew the whole thing up. This has been his style all along, not just in one debate, and it reflects the whole anti-intellectual style of the right in the Trump era. We have to take a look at this kind of totally worthless shoutfest and ask: Is this what we want the daily reality of our politics to look like from now on? Because if Trump wins in November, that is what our future will look like. If it seems like politicians are rewarded for this sort of thing, then whoever comes after Trump will do it, too, whether he’s on the right or on the left.

No, Joe Biden is no deliberative genius. But the fact that he looks like one by comparison—the fact that the guy I used to call Senator Blowhard is the most reasonable and soft-spoken candidate—should clarify the stakes.

I’ll talk below about “civic rituals,” and one of those civic rituals is the presidential debate. Even if candidates spend a lot of their time appealing to the tribal loyalties of their base, they have to at least pretend to offer some kind of universal ideas and some kind of rational justification for those ideas. Tuesday’s debate showed us what happens if one of the candidates stops even pretending to do that, and it raises the specter of a world in which there is no longer a place for reason in the affairs of man.

The issue here is whether our politics still has a place for speeches, debates, policy, and ideas—or whether we just yell insults at each other from here on out.

Epistemology is on the ballot. You won’t quite be able to cast a positive vote in favor of rational discourse—I can’t bring myself to accept Joe Biden as the representative for that cause—but you sure can cast a vote against it.

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