What I saw–and didn’t see–of the debate

Now that some of the dust—if not nuclear fallout—has settled from last night’s so-called presidential debate, I first want to express relief that the response I’m seeing today (admittedly on MSNBC and The New York Times for the most part) are solidly in Biden’s favor.

Relieved, because for the first hour or so that I stayed with it, I thought “Sleepy Joe” was taking a beating, such a savage and merciless beating, in fact, that I had to turn away.

I also had to turn away periodically from the savage and merciless beating I took on Facebook for saying this. One Facebook “friend” responded with “FU” to my first post (also tweeted), right at the outset of Trump’s initial onslaught, “Bad start for #Biden. #debates.” I hate to use the overused word “proverbial,” but to me, Biden looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights.

But as so often happens in Facebook threads—especially, I’m sorry to say, my threads–I wasn’t sure if she was directing her “FU” at me or another respondent. So dusting off my best Travis Bickle, I came back with, “You saying FU to me? If so you can say goodbye.” Then I stewed for the next 40 minutes, checking back every five seconds for a response, then when none came, finally pulled the plug.

“Only lost one friend tonight, and for once I did the unfriending!” I posted before finally shutting down around 3 a.m. This got the most laughs I’ve gotten on Facebook probably since that Thanksgiving post where I said I was thankful for everyone who hadn’t unfriended me.

Then another FB “friend” picked up on it this morning and spelled it out: “FUCK YOU,” all caps. “Goodbye,” I returned, and this time UF’d him in 10 seconds. I followed it with a general post, “To whom it may concern: I can take a lot of shit, but you only get the chance to say ‘Fuck you’ to me once.”

All this because I thought Biden was getting his butt kicked and decided to say so.

But few understood that I was speaking of debate style over substance, and a style—Trump’s—that was anything but pretty. And it’s something that I saw coming, as I tweeted earlier in the day: “Expecting #DebateTuesday to be stacked in #Trump’s favor, due to the set-up and eternal network goal of providing #WWERaw entertainment value. Hope #Biden sticks to being the adult in the room, sternly showing maturity opposite Trump’s bratty incompetence and incoherence.”

Now, I do think Biden did that, but he still failed—at least for that first hour—because the debate format, as expected, was stacked in Trump’s favor. Chris Wallace couldn’t have been worse, but I don’t know that any moderator would have done better—nor would they have wanted to: Bottom line is, everyone is talking about it—no matter that most of it is brutally negative toward Wallace, and Trump–and so rightly so.

But back to Biden, and why I thought he was battered—no matter that he’s a veritable saint sitting opposite Satan. Another post, which shortly followed “Bad start for Biden,” only encouraged the pile-up on me: “#Trump in control of the #debate.”

Many found this, like its predecessor, wrong, even disgusting, to the point of white-hot anger. But they either missed the context, or took it out of context, that is, what I meant by saying Trump was in control—which was not to be taken as praise or approval, but statement of fact.

One friend, whom I’m in 100 percent agreement with on substance, was especially livid, but calmed down enough by morning to understand where I was coming from and deleted his earlier tweets—then used a good chess analogy: “If we were sitting down to play chess, and you kept knocking over my pieces rather than playing the game properly, you’re not in control. You’re just being an asshole.”

But I would say that I would be in control and an asshole, meaning, because I was an asshole and not “playing the game properly,” I controlled not so much how you played the game, but if you could play the game at all.

In the case of the debate, then, I offered a couple sports analogies of my own.

Football is relatively simple: They talk about ball control and “time of possession.” Usually, who ever controls the ball the best, and has the most time of possession (of the ball), is the winner—though not always.

I would say that Trump clearly controlled the movement (ball) of the portion of the debate that I watched, and had the most time of possession of the microphone via constant interruption and talking over Biden. I’m happy to see that so many Facebook friends and Wednesday morning media quarterbacks didn’t award him the game ball.

But comparing the debate to a boxing prize fight offers subtler analytic possibilities. Now I’ve actually judged professional Muay Thai fights, so here I know a little of what I’m speaking.

Among the things you consider when judging a fight are number of punches thrown, number of punches landed and damage of punches landed, also quality of defense, and perhaps most important, aggression—effective aggression. Of course, all of this is subjective, as is judging last night’s debate.

So what I saw at the start, and what I scored in his favor, was Trump’s effective aggression. True, it was dirty, dirty, dirty, filthy, but Wallace allowed it, maybe secretly encouraged it, and it was effective: I felt that Biden was overwhelmed, couldn’t counter, and could only flail.

I’ve seen since, of course, that Biden connected with at least two hard punches—clobbering Trump on his racism and disdain for democracy–and they get scored higher than Trump’s jabs. And that Biden withstood the barrage and that Trump ended up not winning any converts. And that the unanimous realization of Trump’s vile nature and just plain ugliness–and Biden’s uncompromising decency–was the real winner.

As Elizabeth Bruenig wrote in The New York Times, “When Biden explained in simple terms why it’s important to be kind–not just from the standpoint of individual relationships, but for the survival of liberal democracy–he hit upon something crucial. This form of government requires certain virtues and a willingness to understand things from different points of view is one of them. I would argue that willingness to understand is a form of love, and one that isn’t easily inculcated into hardened hearts. Biden didn’t say all of that, of course, and I’m not sure he would endorse it. But he did set his sights on something much more critical, in that short speech, than specific policies or elections.”

And that’s what I didn’t see in that first hour, before turning away from a lopsided performance, Biden’s goodness notwithstanding.

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