Home 2024 Elections Thoughts on Last Night’s Debate-From-Hell: “you don’t let a proven propagandist on...

Thoughts on Last Night’s Debate-From-Hell: “you don’t let a proven propagandist on stage without stopping him when he lies”; “Trump did not win the debate, Biden lost it”

"If we go down as a nation--and we just might--it's because the corporatized media enabled it through performative neutrality"

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I didn’t watch all of last night’s debate, because after 20 minutes or so, I could tell how it was going to go (miserably), plus it was just painful and demoralizing to watch. This morning, I’ve read a ton of analysis on it, and yep, it’s exactly what I thought would happen. Anyway, like a lot of people, I’m trying to process what happened and where that leaves us right now. So to that end, here’s a somewhat stream-of-consciousness series of thoughts on what we saw last night, and where we’re at right now.

  • For starters, some of us (raises hand!) have warned for MONTHS that Joe Biden and his team shouldn’t agree to debate Trump unless there was some sort of guarantee of real-time fact checking – because we KNOW with 100% certainty that Trump will spew out a “firehose of lies,” making any “debate” with him a completely absurd exercise, in which one candidate (Joe Biden) is reality/fact-based and operating in good faith, while the other candidate (Donald Trump) doesn’t give the slightest crap about facts or reality – and most certainly is NOT operating in good faith!
  • So why did Team Biden not just agree to this debate, but PUSH for it, as if they’d kick Trump’s ass and turn the election around in their favor? It’s hard to say, but it really, REALLY doesn’t reflect well on the judgment of Biden’s close political advisors, nor does it reflect well on the people “prepping” Biden for this shitshow, nor does it reflect well on Biden himself, because ultimately he’s the boss and the proverbial “buck” stops with him. 
  • Superb points by Ruth Ben-Ghiat and Will Stancil here, including that debating is “information warfare for Trump,” and obviously “you don’t let a proven propagandist on stage without stopping him when he lies” – “Instant refutation is key.” And yet, that didn’t happen. At all. Instead, the moderators, who are supposedly journalists, sat there like potted plants, said “Thank you President Trump” (he’s FORMER President Trump, by the way), etc. Which, effectively, let Trump broadcast his lies to tens of millions of Americans, without any serious pushback or even a note on the screen that THIS IS A LIE. That is the complete opposite of what journalism should be, but far from being ashamed, CNN issued a bizarre statement claiming it was “very proud of Jake and Dana.” Totally warped.

  • More from Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a brilliant scholar on “Authoritarians, fascism, propaganda, democracy”:
    • “One day people will wake up to the magnitude of Trump’s achievements as a propagandist. Propaganda requires repetition and Trump has wormed his way into people’s heads by repeating the same lies for years. He’s been so effective that people don’t even call them lies anymore: for the NYT front page, it is ‘bluster.'”
    • “And Team Autocracy says to Trump: keep the flood of lies going! You did great! Hardly anyone in the press is talking about your crimes, they are focused on Biden!”
    • “One bad performance and you’re fired! Who cares if the economy is booming and your opponent wants to wreck democracy.”
    • “If truth matters, Biden won the debate. Trump lied with flair so he ‘won.’ Folks, this is a symptom of a deeply degraded politics. Creeping authoritarianism has hollowed out the old political rituals until they are useless.”
  • On a related note, great point by Sally Kohn:
    • “HERE’S THE PROBLEM: Trump is a decisive communicator but LIES. Biden tells the TRUTH but not as clearly and assertively. It’s misinformation vs. democracy — the entire challenge of our nation in one debate. Ugh.”

Ugh indeed.

  • And as Judd Legum says:
    • “I guess the format of the debate is trump lies and everyone lets him lie and then we go to the next question.”
  • To quote the brilliant climate scientist and University of Pennsylvania Professor Michael Mann:
    • “If we go down as a nation–and we just might–it’s because the corporatized media enabled it through performative neutrality”
  • Not that there will be any consquences for CNN, apparently. As Jesse Lee (“Former Econ Comms for President Biden, Senior Advisor to Speaker Pelosi, Special Assistant to President Obama, VP of Comms for CAP”) puts it:
    • “The amazing thing about the CNN debate is that about a year ago, the whole network almost collapsed after this Trump interview, and they just repeated their mistake times a thousand.”
  • Meanwhile, what Biden was attempting to do – and even if he’d been highly articulate, which obviously he wasn’t at all – was to have a real, serious debate on the issues, the facts, the evidence, reality. So presumably his week of preparation at Camp David included tons of policy-heavy briefing books, practice sessions, etc. The only problem is, none of that really mattered in a spectacle like we witnessed last night. Instead, Biden would have been a LOT better off to have simplified things down to maybe three or four main points, and keep hammering them: 1) Trump is a convicted felon; 2) Trump tried – and continues to try – to destroy our democracy; 3) Trump wants to be a dictator; 4) Trump is a climate science denier, Big Lie promoter, etc. Then just keep hammering those points, plus of course make the case for Biden’s overall superb record as president, while accurately blaming Trump for the problems Biden inherited when he took office in late January 2021 (e.g., supply-chain issues coming out of the COVID disaster, which combined with a super-charged economic recover during 2021 and 2022, resulted in inflation). Instead, it seems like Biden’s head was stuffed with facts, figures (“millions!” “I mean billions!” “or was it trillions?!?” – ugh), which led to Biden sounding incoherent, going into brain lock/brain freeze mode, etc. Such a huge mistake by the people who prepared Biden for this debate, and really, if they can be fired, they all should be…but presumably they won’t be, because incompetence never seems to be punished in the Democratic Party. Sigh…
  • Overall, it’s hard to disagree with anything UVA Professor Larry Sabato says here:

“Donald Trump is like untethered to truth. And so he just tells tons of lies and even like a really refined, uh, young rhetorically nimble debater would struggle if they thought that their objective up there was to be like that was a lie that was a lie that was a lie that was a lie and here’s the truth and i only have two minutes to deliver that it’s like an objectively challenging situation um i think that they’re like the uh aesthetic problem Biden is going to have is that this is going to do the inverse for him, what the State of the Union address did in March.
But that was March and now we’re in June and the conventions are coming up. And so there’s going to be Well, this is like he had already lost like the the advantage that the State of the Union address gave him on the age question where it put it to bed for a while and then Republicans started bringing it back and suddenly people were starting to worry about it again. And now like. Those questions are going to dog him more severely than they did before the State of the Union address. And there’s not going to be a clear opportunity for him to prove that they were wrong, right? So that’s really bad.”
  • There’s a lot of talk this morning about possibly making a change at the top of the Democratic ticket. For instance, here’s Paul Krugman, a super-strong Democrat and liberal who has been a staunch defender of President Joe Biden. This morning, Krugman wrote:

    “Joe Biden has done an excellent job as president. In fact, I consider him the best president of my adult life. Based on his policy record, he should be an overwhelming favorite for re-election.

    But he isn’t, and on Thursday night he failed to rise to the occasion when it really mattered…

    Given where we are, I must very reluctantly join the chorus asking Biden to voluntarily step aside, with emphasis on the “voluntary” aspect. Maybe some Biden loyalists will consider this a betrayal, given how much I have supported his policies, but I fear that we need to recognize reality.

    Step aside for whom? Kamala Harris was, by all accounts, an effective district attorney and attorney general, and she has also been quietly effective as vice president, promoting Biden’s policies. Choosing her as his successor would in no sense be settling for less.”

  • And while all this might very well be true, the problems with replacing Biden at this point are multifold. Maybe they can be overcome, but it would be messy – potentially  VERY messy – and also potentially HIGHLY divisive for the Democratic Party, which most likely would have an intense, even brutal fight over who should replace Biden. As Norm Ornstein (who totally called it YEARS ago on the extremist direction of the GOP) explains:

“People think that somehow you could have a clean and easy process and just pick the candidate you think would be the absolute best. Whitmer, Warnock Newsom, Booker. That’s not how it would work if you had a wide open nomination battle that would have to be decided within weeks. It would be very messy. And you are right, to bypass Harris would be a huge problem. So have patience. Wait a few days at least and see what the broader public reaction is. See if Biden can get out there and show that this was just a bad night and not more than that.”

“Why didn’t I agree with @ezraklein when he did his initial “Biden should step aside” take? 1. I thought Ezra was underrating the problems with an open convention and the difficulty of coordination (which as we are seeing is still a huge problem). 2. I thought it was premature, given that Biden hadn’t really *tried* to perform on a public stage in a big way. Note that Ezra wound up backtracking after a strong State of the Union! 3. You can always drop out later, but you can’t un-dropout. Better to preserve optionality. Obviously (3) becomes less true with every passing day, (2) no longer applies, so now you’re stuck with purely (1). And (1) unfortunately is still basically unsolvable.”

My view is that I was most definitely NOT open previously to talk of replacing Biden at the top of the ticket, but am much more open to it now, after last night’s disastrous debate performance (and yes, I understand that in a sane world, Trump would overwhelmingly be viewed as losing that debate, because every word he said is a lie and/or insane, but…sadly, we don’t live in a sane/well-informed world, plus our political media is totally FUBAR). The reasons I was NOT open previously to talk of replacing Biden at the top of the ticket were several: 1) Biden’s done a great job as president; 2) it looked like Biden had at least a 50/50 shot of beating Trump; 3) replacing Biden wouldn’t necessarily result in a nominee with any better shot of beating Trump; 4) the process of finding a new nominee would be HIGHLY contentious, potentially causing a civil war in the Democratic Party, and harming our chances in November. What changed is that last night’s debate  seriously calls into question points #2 and #3, which is really all that matters at this point –  beating Trump, preserving our democracy, not going fascist, etc. So maybe we COULD find a nominee with a better shot than Biden at defeating Trump?  We’ll see how the polls look in coming days, but if Biden falls significantly behind Trump, it will be almost impossible not to have a serious discussion about pulling the plug, making a change, etc.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that 40, 50, 60 years ago, the stakes would have been high but not existential. Today, though, we really can’t afford to lose the White House even ONCE – ever! – to what’s become an extremist, dangerous, radicalized Republican Party, which has indicated its desire to implement the absolutely horrifying “Project 2025” blueprint (and yes, if you’re not familiar with it, you need to get up to speed on this ASAP – and share it with everyone you know!). Also consider that another term with Trump – or any Republican, really – in the White House will solidify the far right’s control of the Supreme Court, and the courts in general, for potentially decades to come. Which, as this Supreme Court term’s decisions have clearly shown, would mean an almost complete disrespect for precedent, the constitution and the rule of law, plus utter contempt towards the ability of our government to protect us against polluters and other bad actors. In other words, say goodbye to trained experts making decisions on things like how much lead should be in water, and say hello to far-right judges making those decisions. Yeah, shudddderrrr.  So obviously, we had better not let any of that happen…which again, means we need to focus on having a presidential nominee this fall who has the best shot at defeating Trump. Period.  Because really, at this point, nothing else matters.

P.S. As Angry Staffer astutely asks: “How did we have an entire debate without a single question about Project 2025? Project 2025 is the single most dangerous agenda any of us have ever seen for a prospective president, and we just… didn’t talk about it?”

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