Last week’s presidential debate was a tirade of uncivil absurdity. No matter what your political orientation or identity, it was an unprecedented exchange devoid of order or respect, a travesty.
It was so disastrous that it allowed most news outlets to come to the same general agreement: that was the worst presidential debate in the history of America. Now, with the president’s and the first lady’s diagnoses, the cataclysmic uncertainty and despair caused by the debate have only heightened.
For anyone who missed the debate, here are some key highlights: there was no coherent conversation between President Trump and Vice President Biden. While each had two minutes to state their position about a certain topic, Trump often talked over Biden, explicitly dismissing the agreed-upon terms that were agreed upon by both campaigns. Moreover, both candidates often cut off the moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, who struggled to take control of the debate, often leading to yelling matches between the three of them. Biden refused to reject the assertion that he would try to pack the court if the Trump administration replaced the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Similarly, Trump refused to condemn white supremacists, rather, opting to tell them to “stand back and stand by.” Finally, Trump attacked Biden’s family, namely his son Hunter Biden, on multiple occasions, and Biden retaliated by calling Trump a liar and a clown and telling him “will you shut up, man?,” which has already been put on shirts and made into a campaign slogan.
By the looks of it, this debate was just another form of entertainment, another thing to laugh at on a boring Tuesday night. However, it is much more dangerous than it seems. This debate is already experiencing dire consequences. America’s perception globally, which was already teetering on the unstable and absurd, had taken another hit.
Markus Feldenkirchen, the contributor to a German newspaper, stated that the debate was a “joke, a low point, a shame for the country,” describing it as two children who hurled insults at each other. John Sawers, a British diplomat, stated that “The country we have looked to for leadership has descended into an ugly brawl.” Thomas Gomart, the director of the French Institute of International Relations, said that the debate only proved to him “that the United States has retreated from the global stage and withdrawn into itself.”
Nicole Bacharan, a French-American historian and political analyst, stated that, while European nations feel despair alongside Americans due to the loss of a powerful ally, countries like Russia, Brazil and Turkey are cheering. They have watched the eminence and power of America devolve into absurd antics that lack respect. Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times in China, said that Trump and Biden showed poor judgement within the debate, adding “Such chaos at the top of U.S. politics reflects division, anxiety of U.S. society and the accelerating loss of advantages of the U.S. political system.”
Of course, this global reaction is not purely a response to the debate. The debate comes after months of upheaval in the United States. With the disastrous COVID-19 response from the Trump administration and America as a whole, which left over 200,000 dead, and the inability to address the Black Lives Matter protests, America was already seen as chaotic to the outside world–the debate has merely cemented this notion in the global consciousness.
This mixture of chaos, fear and absurdity has been the trademark of this administration. His refusal to condemn the Proud Boys and white supremacy and the sheer lack of planning and policy that he demonstrates has ushered in a nonsensical vacuum where there once used to be coherence. The breakdown and disintegration of dialogue, combined with the multiplicity of narratives and ideological battles on social media have combined to create Baudrillard’s prediction of a “hyperreality,” a simulacrum that emulates reality on a heightened scale that can no longer be differentiated from reality itself.
Trump may have keenly exacerbated this phenomenon, but this is not to say that it wasn’t already operational prior. Social media and technology play a crucial role in this, so do cultures of individualism that lead to a deep sense of dissociation from both the community and politics. Baudrillard also predicted a culture where there would be “more information but less meaning.”
Now, Americans are trying to decipher the messages emerging from the White House about the president’s health and trying to work out how this diagnosis will affect the election. Meanwhile, Trump’s actions endanger himself and those around him and his tweets spread confusion and hysteria.
The debate was perhaps as funny as it was frightening. It elicited satirical parodies and cartoons; gasps, laughs, smirks, everything that comes standard with a typical reality tv show. At some point in recent years, absurdity in our political scheme took over. We’ve become so locked into our political parties that we’ve become irrational in defending the party and its members; we refuse to realize that our party can do any wrong. The amount of things we see coming from the White House or politicians in general that make the American people laugh or roll their eyes is astronomical. Politics is not supposed to be funny, and yet at some point, it became the biggest running gag in our nation, and it is dangerous.
Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus postulated and embodied the concept of absurdity through their art, now, it has seeped into politics. Many of us are aware of this phenomenon, but we struggle to escape it. The future of Black lives, women’s reproductive rights, the LGBTQ+ community, the climate, health care, gun control, and so, so much more is in the balance and hangs on this election.
So how can we counteract this absurd hyperreality?
Humor, on its own, can be a powerful tool. However, we can laugh without discounting our own power. No matter how absurd the political situation may be, it does not change the fact that our actions have consequences. So says history. So says physics. Recognize that this absurdity is a tactic. It is designed to be disempowering and confusing. Laugh. Fact check. Vote. Write. Take action, in whatever form. Because if we translate absurdity into apathy and wring our hands, we’re not just laughing at the world, we’re laughing at ourselves.
Stay tuned for Honeysuckle’s take on the upcoming Vice-Presidential Debate.