We Bought the Certain Dog

The debate’s enforced vacuity made little room for sustained discussions of policy—much less for the relationship between policy and daily life. Biden tried where he could, but he didn’t mention his transformative NLRB or FTC appointments, and he was in no position to force a conversation about the child care tax credit or reshoring manufacturing jobs on anything like his own terms, whatever those might have been.

The first debate

During the first Trump term I never got too worked up about the Democrats’ weird fondness for blaming everything on Vladimir Putin. The gesture seemed so reflexive, so desperate in its invocation of an outdated cold war anxiety, that my only reaction to Rachel Maddow freaking out about the Steele dossier and dezinformatsiya was pity and bemusement.

But in recent months I’ve been feeling less equanimity about vulgar Soviet-Russian analogies. It’s sensible to discuss gerontocracy in the context of Biden, Trump, Feinstein, McConnell, RBG, and so on, but it’s not nice to keep bringing the USSR into it. Last night I saw a number of tweets comparing Biden to Konstantin Chernenko—OK, it was like two tweets, but this has been percolating for a while—so as soon as the debate ended I pulled up some videos of speeches Chernenko and Andropov and Brezhnev delivered in their final years, toward the end of their country’s and their own stagnation. These videos proved highly informative. It’s true that in his 1984 remarks about agricultural production Chernenko has some trouble breathing and his delivery is kind of halting. And yes, Brezhnev slurs his words at times as he awards the Order of Lenin to a handful of party officials, his commendation taking on a droopy quality as it goes along. Andropov, on the other hand, really keeps it together for the minute or so of speaking time he is allotted between loud bursts of applause from the Party Congress. None of this is peak performance, but to compare Biden to this trio is—well, it’s Russophobic.

A Trump–Chernenko debate would have been less punishing and more rewarding than what went down in Atlanta. As Biden death-marched to the podium he seemed to be communicating his greetings to the moderators via grunt. The speaking voice that then emerged seemed like little more than an elaboration on the grunt, an uncanny, cold-induced dirge. The debate’s longest and most punishing twenty-second stretch—Biden freezing, starting and restarting, and finally recovering only via pure nonsense (“We finally beat Medicare”)— furnished the night with its most indelible moment. But a comparatively modest slip just before that felt more revealing, when Biden corrected “a thousand trillionaires in America” to “billionaires in America” and, in the next sentence, “$500 million dollars” to “billion dollars.” Once, sure, Brezhnev might have done that. But two in a row?

It was even worse when Biden wasn’t talking. For half of the debate, as Trump ranted away, there was Biden’s resting lost face on the right side of the split screen, a sad, vacant look that suggested a profound and existential confusion. I knew that Biden hadn’t actually shut down, that he heard what Trump was saying and made some effort to respond to it. But none of that could compensate for the anguished intensity of the resting lost face, an intensity familiar to me from the last few years of my dad’s life. In that case, too, I came to realize that even as my dad’s face occasionally suggested complete withdrawal from the world, he could in fact be present and responsive. But it’s the face that I remember, not the lucid-adjacent words that would inevitably follow.

My dad worked for CNN for over twenty-five years, in Moscow and then in Atlanta, and the network’s imperial period, from the fall of the iron curtain through the first Gulf War and until the Time Warner merger in 1996, must have imprinted itself on me. When relatives and family friends would come to visit, the most important part of the itinerary was always CNN Center, which the company vacated last year in favor of the ugly brick complex a couple miles north of where the debate was held. My dad would eschew the official tour in favor of his superior, unofficial one—we entered through the employee entrance, walked freely around the newsroom, saw the sets from behind, peeked into the editing bays. It’s possible that I owe my stubborn belief that TV remains an overbearingly powerful political force—even in the face of a democratized and manipulable social media edifice—to those childhood trips into the heart of the late 20th-century information age. Whatever the reason, last night it was obvious that TV matters, that it can illuminate what other forms of media cannot. Over the years I’ve watched and not watched many debates that were irrelevant, painful, memorable for their stultification rather than their impact—which is only ever limited, no matter how well established it might be that Michael Dukakis lost because CNN’s Bernard Shaw asked him if he’d support the death penalty if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered. The Trump–Biden debate won’t decide the election, but it felt momentous for what it revealed about the presidential candidates and the media-political environment they inhabit.

The most generous read of Biden’s performance is also the most damning for his party. In the eight years since Obama was in power, a large and influential segment of Democrats seems to have convinced itself that one can govern entirely in the absence of charisma—an ironic misperception after Obama, in particular. It was certainly the case that Americans wanted and deserved an antidote to the punishing and all-consuming Trump presidency. But this didn’t mean that what they needed was a non-President. Biden spoke in long, uninflected lists at 1.5x speed, with no emphasis and no hierarchy of presentation. Channeling a larger Democratic aversion to combat and perhaps to politics as a whole, he responded indirectly, in quotation marks, which is the only way things like “malarkey” and “the morals of an alley cat” could plausibly make any sense. At least three times Biden said that “we found ourselves in a situation,” a turn of phrase that, however appropriate, signaled a troublingly passive disposition. I see that establishment Democrats are freaking out about Biden, as many of us have been doing for the past few years. Well, this is who they wanted—and thus how they wanted it.

Trump is obviously diminished, too. Chernenko would have crushed him. Already in 2020 Trump was so captured by Fox News, so wholly coterminous with right-wing media coverage of himself, that his critiques of Biden often got lost in a sea of proper nouns and buzzwords that didn’t make sense to more than the chosen few. Having spent three years on the rally circuit, giving interviews to sycophants, and dining with sympathetic neo-Nazis, Trump is now even deeper inside the well.1 “And we mentioned the laptop, we mentioned ‘Russia, Russia, Russia,’ ‘Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine,’” he declared at one point, in a litany far more stupefying than anything Biden said throughout the night. For his fans these invocations represent boxes checked, allusions made, a set of secret passwords, but for everyone else they make no more sense than his neologisms, like “bounce-back jobs,” and his true absurdities, like “We had H2O,” “We knock on wood, wherever we may have wood,” and my personal favorite, the frankly unbelievable “We bought the certain dog,” in reference I think to drug enforcement. It’s not enough to just mention the laptop, or to mention that one mentioned the laptop, and it’s not enough to say that “Fifty-one intelligence agents said that the laptop was Russia disinformation. It wasn’t. That came from his son, Hunter. It wasn’t Russia disinformation.” None of this is lucid enough to be a planted seed in the minds of undecided voters. For long stretches of the debate Trump seemed increasingly unable to inhabit any mode other than pure recitation.

If Trump wasn’t more effective—whatever that word might mean in this context—it’s because he insistently got in his own way, blunting his own attacks and failing to capitalize on much of Biden’s disastrous self-presentation. After Biden mentioned Trump’s dismissal of World War I veterans as “a bunch of losers and suckers,” as Trump had to know he would, Trump couldn’t let it go, bringing the line up four more times and making a more persuasive and visible case than ever that he really had called World War I veterans a bunch of losers and suckers. When, in another obvious riff, Biden discussed his decision to run after the riot in Charlottesville, mentioned Trump’s comment about “fine people on both sides,” and quoted Trump as saying that Hitler had done some good things, Trump went all in on the Charlottesville story and let the Hitler thing just sit there. To the extent that the night provided any respite at all, it came from Trump’s paralyzing imprisonment in his own grievance.

The debate’s enforced vacuity made little room for sustained discussions of policy—much less for the relationship between policy and daily life. Biden tried where he could, but he didn’t mention his transformative NLRB or FTC appointments, and he was in no position to force a conversation about the child care tax credit or reshoring manufacturing jobs on anything like his own terms, whatever those might have been. What we did get was Trump’s cheerful account of “killing Roe v. Wade,” which “everybody wanted.” Trump’s narration of his destruction of abortion rights as a serene, democratic achievement celebrated by all was cynical even by his own standards and not, I think, particularly resonant for anyone—supporters or foes. Dobbs is only two years old; people remember what happened. Whatever even keel Trump sought to project was lost when he attacked Democrats for “[taking] the life of a child in the eighth month, the ninth month, and even after birth—after birth.” Right, after birth, like in the episode of South Park where Cartman’s mom tries to abort him during the fortieth trimester.

The discussion of January 6 was similarly revealing. I wish we had a word like “gaslighting,” that described the process of gaslighting, that wasn’t “gaslighting,” which has been hollowed out of all meaning. The need for this word really made itself felt when Trump blamed the storming of the Capitol on Alexandra Pelosi (?) and said:

Let me tell you about January 6. On January 6, we had a great border, nobody coming through, very few. On January 6, we were energy independent. On January 6, we had the lowest taxes ever. We had the lowest regulations ever. On January 6, we were respected all over the world. All over the world, we were respected. And then he comes in and we’re now laughed at.

“On January 6, we had a great border.” Trump’s monomaniacal focus on immigration was his campaign’s great innovation when it launched in 2015 with “they’re not sending their best,” and he sees no reason to switch gears now. If his accounts of Dobbs and January 6 were self-conscious in their defensive desperation, Trump’s fanatical, self-evidently baseless references to immigration throughout the debate were an explicit motif. More than bringing down inflation, more than making America great again (again), this was his pitch:

  • “We call it migrant crime. I call it Biden migrant crime. They’re killing our citizens at a level that we’ve never seen before.”
  • “What he is doing is destroying all of our medical programs because the migrants coming in. They want everybody. And look, I have the biggest heart on the stage. I guarantee you that. And I want to take care of people. But, we’re destroying our country. They’re taking over our schools, our hospitals, and they’re going to be taking over Social Security.”
  • “He decided to open up our border, open up our country to people that are from prisons, people that are from mental institutions, insane asylum, terrorists. We have the largest number of terrorists coming into our country right now. All terrorists all over the world, not just in South America, all over the world. They come from the Middle East, everywhere, all over the world.”
  • “Did you fire anybody that’s on the border, that’s allowed us to have the worst border in the history of the world? Did anybody get fired for allowing eighteen million people, many from prisons, many from mental institutions? Did you fire anybody that allowed our country to be destroyed? Joe, our country is being destroyed as you and I sit [sic] up here and waste a lot of time on this debate.”
  • “But Social Security, he’s destroying it. Because millions of people are pouring into our country, and they’re putting them on to Social Security; they’re putting them on to Medicare, Medicaid. They’re putting them in our hospitals. They’re taking the place of our citizens. They’re—what they’re doing to the V.A., to our veterans, is unbelievable. Our veterans are living in the street and these people are living in luxury hotels. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. And it—it’s really coming back. I’ve never seen such anger in our country before.”
  • “He wants open borders. He wants our country to either be destroyed or he wants to pick up those people as voters. And I don’t think—we just can’t let it happen. If he wins this election, our country doesn’t have a chance. Not even a chance of coming out of this rut. We probably won’t have a country left anymore. That’s how bad it is.”
  • “All he does is make our country unsafe by allowing millions and millions of people to pour in.”

There is no longer any novelty to Trump’s once-groundbreaking willingness to bash the US, but the intensity with which he insisted that everything that had gone wrong in America was Biden’s fault, and that his greatest crime was his willingness to let in immigrants who are now destroying our way of life—well, there’s a word for that, and I think people spent too much time arguing about its appropriateness over the past few years. Trump and his campaign and his advisers are driven by their hatred of immigrants above all else. They consider us a blight and a sickness. When voters contemplate a second Trump term, I think they should simply listen to what Trump is saying.

“We’ve become like a third world nation,” Trump said early in the debate, “and it’s a shame. The damage he’s done to our country—and I’d love to ask him, and will, why he allowed millions of people to come in here from prisons, jails, and mental institutions to come into our country and destroy our country.” In the end this was less startling than what followed from CNN’s Jake Tapper. “President Trump, we will get to immigration later in this block,” Tapper said sternly in response. We will get to immigration? Fuck you.

The failure of moderation last night was total and comprehensive—a reminder that TV created Trump (“The other thing is, he doesn’t fire people,” Trump said last night in a handy tie-in moment. “He never fired people. I’ve never seen him fire anybody. I did fire a lot”), made his presidency possible, and now ensures that his return is highly probable. It’s not only that Trump is good for business—Jeff Zucker, who greenlit The Apprentice at NBC, was president of CNN from 2013 until 2022—it’s that his durability as a candidate is the direct result of TV news refusing to respond to his barrage of deceptions with any kind of journalistic or analytic rigor. (An hour after the debate ended, CNN’s Erin Burnett allowed that “there is the crucial question of the truth” and brought out Daniel Dale to recite the long litany of Trump’s “staggering false claims”: no, Biden isn’t planning to quadruple people’s taxes; Europe does in fact import American cars; no, every legal scholar didn’t want Roe overturned; no, Trump is not a Manchurian candidate who gets money from China; no, the border isn’t open (if only). But an hour after is an hour too late.) The point isn’t to tell Trump he’s lying, which Biden did twice with inevitably zero success. It’s to anticipate Trump’s performance on the basis of all prior evidence and respond accordingly, as TIME uncharacteristically did in a recent interview. What I’m suggesting is that if Trump’s unprecedented tendency to speak in violent hyperbole can’t be addressed, then he shouldn’t be participating in a debate at all.

Trump has been with us in this iteration for nearly a decade—we all live in the world he’s made. During the discussion of Roe, which should have been straightforward enough for Biden despite Dana Bash’s infuriating follow-up question about late-term abortion, Biden pivoted horrifically to—well:

Look, there’s so many young women who have been—including a young woman who just was murdered and he—he went to the funeral. The idea that she was murdered by a—by—by an immigrant coming in, and they talk about that. But here’s the deal, there’s a lot of young women who are being raped by their—by their in-laws, by their—by their spouses, brothers and sisters, by—just—it’s just—it’s just ridiculous.

Who knows what Biden was thinking here. But the overconfident invocation of rape was only possible thanks to Trump’s breezy relationship to violence and cruelty of all kinds.

“He has become like a Palestinian,” Trump said of Biden with a sneer. “But they don’t like him because he is a very bad Palestinian. He is a weak one.” “President Biden,” Bash responded, “you have a minute,” with no thought to challenging the use of the word “Palestinian” as a slur. But it’s not as if Biden did any better. How could he? Since October 7, he has accommodated and facilitated a genocide that went more or less unnamed last night. What little account he did give of the war naturally made no room for any criticism of the ceaseless Israeli violence and never gestured toward the vast humanitarian crisis of his Administration’s making. At numerous points Biden invoked the threat of a Russian invasion of Poland, Belarus, and Hungary without making the obvious connection to Israel’s determination to fight a disastrous regional war.

Biden mentioned Republican congressional intransigence only once. The Supreme Court only came up in the context of Dobbs. The morning after the debate the Supreme Court criminalized homelessness, let January 6 insurrectionists off the hook, and—in its long-dreaded decision on Chevron—“undermined Congress’s ability to enact effective legislation capable of addressing evolving problems and sabotaged the executive branch’s ability to apply those laws to the facts on the ground,” per Mark Joseph Stern in Slate. “It is one of the most far-reaching and disruptive rulings in the history of the court.” Trump didn’t try to pretend to have an answer on childcare and did no better on opioids or climate change. These ancient and golf-addled personalities dominate our lives and—in their unequal ways—have ensured that we will live under the star of de-development. “Everything was rocking good,” Trump said about the US at the end of his first term. It was unbelievable then and it’s unbelievable now.

  1. Or the lake? There was an absurd riff recently about sharks and boats that has to be seen: https://twitter.com/Acyn/status/1799895088354804183

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