The United States is fracturing under the weight of racial hatred and the coronavirus pandemic – none of which can be grappled with by two men bickering onstage for 90 minutes. American journalist Marc Daalder reviews the US presidential debate from his new home in New Zealand.
When a democracy falls apart, you might not notice until after it’s happened.
It takes time and concerted effort to erode democratic conventions and legal norms. Each individual barrier that falls seems consequential, but you can rationalise away the concern by reassuring yourself that more are still standing. Eventually, though, if enough trees are cut down, you’ll look up and realise the forest is gone.
In November 2016, feminist writer Amy Siskind began recording a weekly list of unusual and undemocratic events in the United States.
“Experts in authoritarianism advise to keep a list of things subtly changing around you, so you’ll remember,” she wrote.
Reading back over the early lists, the concerns are laughable – the Overton Window has shifted so far towards authoritarianism in the intervening 46 months that the America of late 2016 is nearly unrecognisable.
Longtime political journalist Dan Rather, who covered John F. Kennedy’s assassination and Richard Nixon’s resignation, called Donald Trump’s first week in office “the Twilight Zone”.
The shocking, unusual and undemocratic things that Siskind wrote up for that week’s list: Reporters were arrested while covering protests against Trump’s inauguration, Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway coined the term “alternative facts”, the President threatened to send federal troops to Chicago to crack down on crime, advisor Steve Bannon called media outlets “the opposition party”, the President signed an effective ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and the White House released a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day which didn’t mention Jews, after the original draft provided by the State Department did.
Each of these events violated a long-standing democratic norm. But the situation in the United States has worsened on all of these fronts in the intervening years.
In the past few months alone, we have seen hundreds of reporters beaten and attacked by federal and local law enforcement.
We have seen the President of the United States repeatedly and maliciously lie on a wide range of topics, from alleging without evidence that his political opponents have engaged in illegal activities, to covering up his own failure to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.
We have seen the federal government deploy agents to the streets of American cities against the wishes of local leaders – those agents have subsequently arrested random, peaceful protesters, hauling them into unmarked vans.
We have seen the President and his allies label reporters the “enemy of the people” and urge their supporters not to trust the news media.
We have seen the President and his allies engaging in racist and Islamophobic attacks on four congresswomen of colour.
We have seen the President refuse to condemn white supremacists acting in his name and, from the debate stage, telling a notorious far-right gang to “stand by”.
We have seen the President mainstream a conspiracy theory that motivated a mass shooting at a synagogue.
We have seen at least 125 white supremacist terror attacks and attempts since 2017 and more than 1000 mass shootings of all motivations.
We have seen the President refuse to promise to agree to the results of the election if he loses.
And 200,000 Americans have died as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
On Wednesday afternoon, New Zealand time, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden faced off against Trump on a debate stage in Cleveland, Ohio. While they touched on many of these issues, any gravity was overshadowed by the childish interruptions and exchanges between the two candidates.
In the end, the debate served as little more than a platform for the President to spread misinformation about public health measures and the reliability of mail-in voting. There was no opportunity for anyone to interrogate the fracturing of American democracy – and over the hour and a half that Biden and Trump exchanged personal barbs, some 45 Americans died from Covid-19.
A lot has changed in the 1349 days since Donald Trump became President of the United States.
None of that can be grappled with by two men bickering on a stage for 90 minutes.