Government & Politics

Kunin: Truths hard to find in Trump's tirades

President Trump and Joe Biden in their first presidential debate Sept. 29, 2020. Image from C-SPAN

Madeleine May Kunin is a former Democratic governor of Vermont. She is the author of "Coming of Age, My Journey to the Eighties."

Tuesday night’s presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was an R-rated spectacle. I hope the children weren’t watching. But the world was, much to our embarrassment.

I felt besmirched after it was all over. I wondered what a high school debate team would think about how the grown-ups were behaving.

Madeleine May Kunin. Paul Boisvert photo

I screamed at the television set more than once when Trump pounced on Biden and wouldn’t let him finish a sentence. The pace quickened. Trump launched attack after attack on calm and cool Biden. Moderator Chris Wallace almost lost control of the debate as he tried to enforce debate rules on an increasingly unhinged Trump.

In the days before the debate, my friends were fearful that Biden would get clobbered and Trump would be the winner. Some of them didn’t want to watch because of the anticipated debacle.

So much for ordinary pundits. Biden was not the doddering old man that Trump hoped to display; he was presidential. Trump — who is less than four years younger than Biden — was the man who made you want to turn the television set off.

He told so many lies about mail-in ballots and his taxes that CNN’s fact checker had a hard time finding snippets of truth.

It is not only what each of the debaters said; it was their body language that made Biden the winner. He smiled. Trump scowled. Biden acknowledged the moderator at the outset. Trump did not.

Biden faced the camera head-on several times to address the virtual audience.Trump focused his rants exclusively at the moderator and Biden.

When the debate was over, both men’s wives went up to the stage to congratulate their husbands. Jill and Joe embraced each other with a prolonged hug. Trump and Melania stood side by side.

If Trump thought he could expand his base to win over suburban women, he bombed. Mothers and fathers try to teach their children not to be bullies. Trump, the showman, was the model of a super bully Tuesday night. He became the nasty kid who parents warn their children to stay away from.

What are the consequences for the American people of this ugly slugfest just a few weeks before the election?

Some viewers turned off their television sets after the first round of questions. I don’t need this, they said. A curse on both your houses. Some, sadly, may decide not to vote, because they couldn’t see their way through the cacophony. That would be exactly what Trump wants — a demoralized, low voter turnout. That is why, in every speech, he raises the false specter of corrupt mail-in ballots. 

Debates are intended to have the opposite effect — to inform and inspire citizens to vote.

One healthy consequence of this disastrous debate is that the Commission on Presidential Debates is going to bring out new regulations.

I have a suggestion for the commission. Give the moderator a mute button to silence a candidate who goes over the designated time. I confess I feel a surge of glee at the thought. If, only for example, Trump’s tirade would be cut off mid-sentence.

The most disturbing words we heard in this debate were when Trump refused to denounce the Proud Boys, a violent, white, supremacist hate group. Almost minutes after Trump said, ”Stand back and stand by,” the Proud Boys made his words their motto.

The other time my heart rate went up was when Trump refused to urge his supporters to accept the results of the election. His hope, it appears, is that the election will be decided by his Supreme Court, having achieved a 6-to-3 conservative majority after Judge Amy Comey Barrett is confirmed, having gotten “rid of the ballots” (his words).

What is our defense?

We have to win, and win big. This cannot be a close election. We must aim for a landslide.

The 270 electoral vote count must be beyond dispute.

That is the only way we can win back the respect of the world, and our own self respect as a democracy.

We have to bring out the vote all across the country, as if our lives depend on it, because — yes — they do.

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Madeleine May Kunin

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