On 9 March, I went to Washington, DC to consult with the Commission on Presidential Debates, a non-partisan organisation founded in 1987 that runs the election debates. Any candidate who receives at least 15 per cent support in five national polls is eligible to take part. In practice, this usually means that a Republican faces a Democrat in three commission-sponsored televised debates.
Before 1987, there wasn’t a consistent pattern of presidential debates. They were held in 1960 but not in 1964, 1968 or 1972. The tradition was picked up again in 1976, and the debates became more and more crucial to the election. It was in a debate that Gerald Ford undermined his chances in 1976 by seeming unaware that the Soviet Union controlled Eastern Europe. It was in a debate that Reagan undermined Carter in 1980 with a dismissive ‘There you go again,’ and four years later brushed off the question of his age by saying he wouldn’t hold Mondale’s youth and inexperience against him. It’s said that George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992 when Bush looked at his watch during a town hall debate.
When the commission invited me to Washington, I had just published a book about the need to reclaim conversation in our personal and political lives; it’s too easy to hide behind our screens and avoid face-to-face conversation, which is where we confront real differences and learn how to deal with people who disagree with us. Online, we talk more and more to those we agree with. And when we do talk to those we disagree with, our discourse coarsens. A lot.
The presidential debates bring together Americans who disagree with each other. The CPD wanted my advice on how to keep the online conversation that would swirl around the candidates civil. Technology companies were coming to the commission with ideas: online viewers might see ‘real time questions’ coming in from the national audience; the commission could set up chat rooms where people could discuss and respond to the debate as it unfolded. Did I have ideas about how the commission could protect the debate space?
I talked with Janet Brown, the commission’s executive director, and her staff about technological possibilities, anonymity and restrictions on devices for the audience. What if the debate wasn’t tweeted from the hall but everyone had a chance to listen without punditry? Would it be possible to have everyone in the audience (except reporters) turn off their phones? Would enforced attention lead to greater civility in the debate hall?
All of this was interesting, but it would soon take on an air of melancholy and futility. We talked about how to use the internet to enhance the debate, but the internet had already changed what the American public would tolerate in a public forum. Online we are accustomed to bullies and vulgarity and arguments in which facts don’t necessarily count. We abbreviate and skip steps until we lose sight of the full argument altogether. And that’s what we were getting in our new political discourse.
On 10 March, the day after my visit to the CPD, Donald Trump was in his 12th primary debate, in Coral Gables, with Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Ted Cruz (the CPD isn’t responsible for primary debates; the stations that broadcast the debates organise them). Like all that had come before, it was vulgar and cruel. Trump called his competitors liars, rated their looks, speculated about their virility. The moderator was insulted and interrupted.
By the time the CPD became involved in the Trump/Clinton debates, the aspiration to civility online was quaint. The truism was that face-to-face discourse makes us civil; hiding behind a screen frees up our crazy. But in the Republican debates we saw screen life being played out as though the debate stage were a chatroom.
In the first CPD debate, Trump interrupted Clinton more than forty times, threatened to bring up Bill Clinton’s sexual infidelities and her response to them, accusing her of victimising the women he had abused. Trump lied repeatedly. He said he had not said things that he had said, and many times. The debate was followed by Trump’s 3 a.m. Twitter rant, an out-of-control stream of accusation and vitriol, including the suggestion that Twitter followers look out for a sex tape of a Miss Universe he had sneered at for gaining weight.
That tape never surfaced but shortly before the second presidential debate, another one did, of Trump boasting about grabbing women by their genitals. That tape was the first order of business at the second debate, a town hall forum. I watched Janet Brown asking for decorum in the hall. The television audience would not learn until later what the CPD had done to maintain civility at the event.
Just before the debate, Trump held an impromtu press conference with three women who had accused Bill Clinton of abuse and were now Trump supporters. (There was a fourth woman who had been raped as a child; her attacker was defended by Hillary Clinton, a court-appointed defence attorney.)
The commission could not prevent Trump’s press conference. But Frank Fahrenkopf, its Republican co-chair, stepped in when Trump tried to seat the four woman on the stage in his family box. The way the stage was set up, this would have meant three of Bill Clinton’s accusers would have met him on an empty debate stage (before the candidates came on) in front of tens of millions of people. Trump wanted his moment of distracting reality television.
The CPD stood up for civility but not in the way I had discussed with them. Fahrenkopf insisted that the women not be seated in the Trump family box. When the Trump campaign wouldn’t give in, Fahrenkopf threatened to call security and have the women removed from the hall. The debate was minutes away. Rather than have a scuffle on the floor, the Trump campaign seated the women in the audience. (In a twist of showmanship, it turned out that Fahrenkopf was bluffing; there was no security to call.)
This concession to civility did not bring civility to the debate. Trump loomed over Clinton on the stage, stood behind her as she spoke and brought the themes of his rallies to the debate floor. He swore that if elected, he would throw her in jail. He (Trump) was guilty only of ‘locker room’ talk; Clinton’s husband was the greatest abuser of women in the history of politics. And she was just as bad: his enabler.
Trump used the debates to speak of a ‘rigged election’, if only because the media was ‘poisoning’ the minds of voters; of the wrong people being allowed to vote; of the election not being legitimate because Clinton should not have been allowed to run. She should have been in jail. When asked in the first debate if he would accept the election result, he at first skirted the question, but finally said he would. In the third debate, he said he would have to see how things turned out.
In retrospect, my time with the CPD looks like a moment at the end of an era. Americans have long felt it was their right to ignore their elections. Turnout is low. The peaceful transition of power lulls us into thinking we will always get another chance. We equate civility with democracy. But now we have a candidate who promises to jail his opponent if he wins and tells us he will not necessarily abide by the result.
President Obama has said of this election that ‘Democracy is on the ballot.’ This is not something we have been good at talking about. It is easier to focus on personalities. Or on the sensational. Or on the particular. Who Trump accosted. Who was too cosy with the Clinton Foundation.
With Donald Trump’s refusal to assert unequivocally that he will abide by the election result, we have to face that our democracy is being tested. But we have not wanted to. Because if our democracy is being tested, we are being tested and something extraordinary is being asked of us. And we are not behaving in extraordinary ways.
On the contrary, we are acting in aggressively ordinary ways. I’m a professor at MIT. It’s just past back-to-school season. My students are turning in their first papers. They say they are bored, irritated by the election. They say they are uninspired by the choice between Trump and Clinton, a flawed politician with too much baggage. But you don’t have the liberty to talk like that if one of the candidates threatens the constitution.
I try to remind my students of the fragility of our institutions. They say the best thing they can do for the future of the country is prepare themselves in their studies. If democracy is on the ballot, I don’t think that’s right.
Am I tedious? Is my language hyperbolic?
I go out to dinner with friends and share my feelings. My friends are staunch Democrats. They are appalled by Trump. They have heard all the things that have made me see him as a demogogue in waiting. And yet, my friends find me tedious. They reassure me that it isn’t going to come to that. When the race tightened before the first debate, one friend suggested we should get together again after the election. After the first debate, when Clinton did well, or rather Trump did so badly, I felt the condescension of my peers. Now that Trump has said he won’t accept the election result, there is more talk of his being unacceptable, of the moment being dangerous, but people are mollified by Clinton’s lead: ‘It isn’t going to come to that.’
Last month at dinner a distinguished novelist and historian asked me if the defence intelligentsia at MIT were meeting to discuss what would happen under a Trump presidency to ‘keep him in check’. I think this is why my students are apathetic and my friends find me tedious. When faced with something that demands we take extraordinary action, it is easier to assume that the grown-ups will tend to it.
I felt I wasn’t doing enough and ought to speak up more. Invited to a Midwestern campus to give a talk on conversation in digital culture, I brought up the election, said that we are conspiring not to talk about what most divides us, spoke of the necessity of talking now. The violence at Trump rallies is growing, there has been violence at an RNC office, Trump talks of the ‘good old days’ when protesters were taken away on stretchers. Talking only works while democratic institutions are in play, before violence breaks out and one looks for, as Trump puts it, the ‘law and order guy’.
After my talk, several people asked me why my comments were so ‘dark’. My host said that the response to the election on her campus has been to lighten up conversation. People are so divided, she says, that they don’t want to get even more depressed. And so I am brought back to where I began: with a desire for civility. Online, none. In political debate, none. So we silence ourselves in order to have it in our neighbourhoods, our schools, our universities, our places of gathering. We have forgotten how to talk to each other.
People see the choice as silence or depression. They say they just want it to be over, as though this were a video game and on 9 November we might be able to press reset.
The Committee on Presidential Debates wanted civility. When I spoke with them about it, we fell into a trap of talking about it as though there were a path to it that involved manipulating the way the internet and social media would be used at the debates. That was upside down. Tutored by our media, real life has become uncivil. If we care about democracy, we have to reclaim our ability to talk to each other.
I hope that Trump loses the election and I am glad that his unacceptable behaviour with women has contributed to his downfall. But that this man who stood against democratic institutions is also a misogynist is a stroke of good fortune. The next time we may not be so lucky.