The Debate, Or Whatever That Was, And That Old Familiar Feeling
It took me a bit, but I finally pinned down that feeling I had watching the debate last night.
An old feeling, a strong déjà vu thing where it bothers you until you figure out which compartment of memory it comes from. But the broken tumblers and worn gears of my semi-functional mind finally clicked into place and there I was, back nearly twenty years ago, and that old feeling was strong and gripping and visceral again. I’m breathing in cold German air, invigoratingly crisp. Oh, hey fighting trim self, dang have I missed you with my current version that is some 50 pounds less and nowhere near as healthy. It’s the middle of the night, or morning, or that place enough between that no one really cares what time it is for decent folks sleeping soundly in their beds somewhere else. It’s a different world, though at the time all the world I knew. It’s all familiar, comfortable, oddly pleasant.
And then again, just as it did then, the water truck goes screaming by, redlined engine plowing it in reverse through a tight turn because the operator was being dragged along the inside of said curve, body on the pavement and hand desperately clinging to the steering wheel. A clinging that while probably saving his life also kept the vehicle on its circular course, until on its third evolution it finally slammed and stopped against the landing gear of the L-1011 it was supposed to be servicing. The 50 feet of hose line having long since reached its limit, the panel it had been connected to came to a skittering halt alongside, ripped from the aircraft and dragged behind like an escaped dog, its leash hanging off its collar, finally conceding to being captured. Hundreds of gallons of water pouring from aircraft and truck spread everywhere. The disembarking troops peering from windows and the jetway were now laughing and finding the whole thing funny, a tension break and respite in their otherwise long trip to being forward deployed. The whole tableau of failure leaving only famine, and — blessedly — death the only missing horseman of that night’s apocalypse.
What had happened was, I explained to a very displeased Chief, Name Withheld skippy got lazy, draped his arm over the column of the truck with his left arm to reach under the dash to pull the hand throttle with his right. Thus, in an epic moment of unintentional coordination, this genius managed to rev and lock the engine on full tilt boogie at the same time as the weight of himself leaning across the column put the old Ford in reverse. Chief demanded the name, which I gave along with pointing to where he was talking to the investigators. “Ah, of course.” Chief rolled not only his eyes but his entire head, no easy feat for a man with a fire hydrant-like neck. “His true self finally metastasized. It all makes sense now.”
We could have just listened to Maya Angelou, but believing folks the first time doesn’t fill content requirements, so analyzing the obvious until it is clear as mud it is. So, we get what we heard last night, which is the way President Trump wants it. Well, he got it. 1
Over the last few weeks, too many of the major news stories involving the president start with the faulty premise that most folks don’t know anything about President Trump. The news cycle of late is festooned with more chyrons and talking heads deploying more “bombshells” than the Nevada Test and Training Range. Honesty, however, requires admission that for the most part each of those were just spins on things that, if someone didn’t know in specific facts, should have at least known from each new screaming headline was in the realm of possibility. Donald Trump had almost 70 years of book on him when he ran for president with all the information you needed to know about him. Those foolish folks who talked about him “growing into the presidency” or “moderating” or “learning his lesson” were doomed to look silly. Donald Trump is many things, but an unknown enigma is not one of them. It’s all there, in the open, often brazenly so.
What we now have before us is the distilling of President Donald J. Trump to his purer, concentrated form. Going into the debate, the question wasn’t what tactic the president was going to use, but how much and how hard he would use it. As it turned out, the president came in cranked to 11 and never let up. Joe Biden, another septuagenarian who has been in public office for almost 50 years, was exactly what the extensive book we have on him told us. The former vice president can connect and emote on a personal level, he has many issues surrounded from having been on different sides of them over the years, he can misrepresent and lie with the ease a life in politics brings to such things, and his demeanor and personality still give him plenty of passes on the bad while accentuating his better qualities.
But in practicality, in not being Donald Trump and not losing complete control of his bearing and temper, Joe Biden was mostly there as a relief. Not in a political sense, though his supporters no doubt feel that way, but in an art sense. Like when an artist or sculptor uses a raised material to give a 3D effect, to elevate something even though it is of the same background material. Joe Biden is normal, comfortable, run-of-the-mill politics, as if the always polling well “generic democrat” was made flesh and dwelled among us. His level of semi-competence of always being in positions of power but not actually affecting the flow of history all that much is par for the American political course. A man who has always been around big events, but the story of those events can easily be told without mentioning him. Joe Biden plays the game well, and he’s just this ingrained piece of American political landscape. He’s politics as it was for so long, with acceptable levels of milquetoast, semi-competence, and corruption as long as your buzzwords are delivered well and you make the right connections and the right people from your side think they are getting what they want. We are used to Joe, we’ve had many before him, the US Senate he served in is full of similar folks, and we will have many after him.
Joe Biden being himself stands in contrast to President Trump. Like with Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign, the material is basically the same: the ambition, the questionable business dealings, the ability to grind your adversary’s teeth down to nubs just by the mention of the name. The method and the dislike of the known quantity had the president sticking out, and not just to supporters of the soon-to-be president but the critical number of folks who stayed home, some who normally would have went for a Democratic Party candidate. The president’s supporters love the relief, love that “he fights”, love that he is unrelenting and unpredictable in attacking anyone and everyone not fully on board the Trump Train.
But with Joe Biden, it isn’t working. Maybe we are in for an historic, epic fail in polling data, but short of that the metrics of the race have not moved much. Biden, by any measure, is the favorite to win, a remarkable thing in and of itself considering history. Fair or not, Joe Biden is just not loathed the way Hillary Clinton was in many circles, and the personal attacks on Biden and his family quickly land as cringy and over the line when President Trump really tries to bore in on them. The president going so hard and so loudly drowns out Biden’s own failings, such as his utterly contemptible “Whatever position I take in that, that’ll become the issue” when pressed on Supreme Court packing and other uneven moments. Every presidency has a fatigue that sets in with it, and perhaps with his style of flame throwing everything for any reason that moment has just come sooner for President Trump than it normally does.
The basic takeaway of this debate was not policy, or programs, or anything other than the optics: The President unloaded on Joe Biden, did not wound him in a significant way, and hurt himself and his own standing in the process. A bad result only 30-odd days out from an election. The president is not done yet, anything can happen, but last night shows us the president not only has no new strategy or idea of what to do about it, but is going to ride the horse that brought him right into the ground no matter what. Trump will go out the way he came, being Donald J. Trump in all its bombastic, gold plated glory.
But you should not be surprised, any more than all the “bombshell” news stories we will be subjected to for the rest of the campaign, by an if not a traditional “October surprise” at least the attention and clicks of one. That’s why that feeling hit me, of watching a water truck running backwards dragging its operator along the ground as he desperately tried to hang on that night in Frankfurt almost two decades ago now. The roar of engines, the screams of desperation, the cacophony of a crash, the massive mess of men, water, and destruction that will need cleaning up afterward while half the folks point and laugh and the other half try to figure out how the hell such a thing happened in the first place.
Oh yes. I know that feeling, I’ve felt it before watching Name Withheld doing his Wile E Coyote act that miraculously didn’t kill anyone but one L-1011 water servicing panel, an aircraft tire, and his own career. And I felt it again last night; it just took me a minute to remember, is all. That initial horror that something is happening, then realizing who the players involved are, and finding some semblance of peace in knowing that this was how it was going to go down, because that’s just the way it had to be with those involved. That sound, as it turns out, was inevitability after all. Four years of redlining was going to break loose at some point, and though it wasn’t all his fault and probably an impossible task, Chris Wallace was left hanging on to the steering wheel of a runaway wreck until elapsed time finally called a halt to the hot mess.
The President went to the debate last night and not only told everyone once again who he was, but demanded everyone know. If you didn’t already, you should believe him this time, because by the end of this campaign with nothing left to lose, he will have fully metastasized to his true self. Dominating is winning to the President, it was his plan going in, and he dominated the debate. For him it was win, regardless what happens next, or the fallout, or how it looks.
It’s up to you how you feel about that, or whether or not this president is worth it for whatever cause you hold dear, and it’s your right to vote on it how you see fit. Just don’t say you weren’t told. President Trump did not give you that option.
- This is of course a rip of the famous “failure to communicate” scene from Cool Hand Luke