Alan Zendell, September 18, 2020
The Biden-Trump debates, the first of which occurs nine days from now, will not be as eloquent or long-winded as the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, but they will be equally momentous. They will also be ironically similar in some ways, more so in light of Attorney General William Barr’s bizarre comparison of slavery and mask wearing.
They won’t be eloquent because no debate involving Donald Trump can be. They won’t be as focused, because it’s impossible to stay centered when one participant doesn’t respect truth and shamelessly says anything he believes will throw his opponent off his game. If you’ve ever done any formal debating, you know the worst kind of opponent is an undisciplined, ill-informed one. My father used to say, “Never argue with an idiot.”
Trump will do what he bragged to Bob Woodward about: attempt to enrage Biden and keep him off message, rambling incoherently and sounding like a professional agitator. Biden will have to avoid taking the bait every time Trump lies, exaggerates, or makes wild accusations. We won’t hear eloquence because Trump is a terrible public speaker who can’t complete an English sentence unless he reads it from a teleprompter, and Biden, as knowledgeable and well-prepared as he is, will stumble over a word now and then when he is impassioned.
The similarities between the debates are the issues. Stephen Douglas supported the status quo, a nation split asunder by slavery. Whether or not he believed slavery was a good thing, he argued passionately for the Missouri Compromise which sought to draw a line on the map between states which could employ slavery and those that couldn’t, the 1858 version of blue states versus red ones. Lincoln famously argued that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and although he lost the 1858 Illinois Senate election to Douglas, he was proven right three years later, when the Confederacy attempted to secede from the rest of the United States, shortly after he was inaugurated as president.
Therein lies the ironic parallelism between then and now, ironic because the Republican party of Lincoln was established to fight against slavery and were accused of being seditionist radicals; in this scenario they were the Blues. Biden and Trump will face off in much the same way. Trump will continue his attempts to divide the nation because he knows that partisan gridlock offers his best chance of victory in November. Biden will argue that the only way to move forward to defeat the pandemic and restore the economy is to work across the aisle and seek common ground.
Biden and Trump showed us how they will approach the first debate last night. Biden did a Presidential Town Hall at a drive-in theater in Scranton, Pennsylvania in front of a small masked audience with diverse political views, though Democrats outnumbered Republicans. Trump ranted in front of thousands of packed-in supporters who were in close quarters for hours making no attempt to maintain safe distances and mostly eschewing masks. Trump pumped up his angry supporters, lying and making wild, unfounded accusations, sounding incoherent much of the time. Biden answered questions from voters, staying relevant and sounding well-prepared, while attacking Trump’s record as irresponsible and “nearly criminal.”
When they debate face-to-face, it should be good theater for most of us. The real target audience will be the small percentage of voters who remain undecided by then. If Trump causes Biden to melt down, he’ll be able to argue that Biden doesn’t have the mental capacity to be president. But if Biden stays on message and goes nose-to-nose with Trump as neither Hillary Clinton nor fifteen Republican candidates could in 2016, Trump’s goose will be cooked.
Nationally, most Americans view Biden as the anti-Trump, the moral equivalent of a vaccine against selfishness and incompetence that are placing our country at risk to explosive internal forces and foreign intervention. The nation succumbed to those forces in 1860 and nearly destroyed itself as Lincoln fought for our moral future. The country is very much in the same situation today. Our institutions are stronger, but it would be foolish to assume they are unassailable. There are a lot of heavily armed angry people in today’s America, and the coming election has the potential to be a powder keg if it isn’t unambiguously resolved. The solution is to vote early and make sure everyone you know does. Trump cannot win against a massive turnout.
Donald Trump will be more divisive than ever if he continues to trail in the polls. But one thing might restrain him. An election tied up in legal challenges could result in Trump’s worst nightmare. If there is no clear winner by January 20, 2021, Nancy Pelosi will be sworn in as president.