Among the words or phrases that were never spoken in the two presidential debates were:
Syria, human rights, drones, democracy, inequality, dictatorship, Israel, Palestine, Middle East, United Nations, World Health Organization, Guantánamo, European Union, Britain, Brexit, France, Italy, Hong Kong, Africa (or any single African state), South America, terrorism, multilateral, authoritarianism, alliance.
That’s a pretty good measure of the shrinking of the American mind.
President Donald Trump never mentioned Afghanistan, where the United States lost more than 2,400 lives and spent some $2 trillion over the past two decades. Joe Biden did, once.
One of the characteristics of a nightmare is that it is all-consuming. Everything beyond it fades into the murk. Trump, in an extraordinary sustained broadcast of his self-obsession, has managed to corral the world into the shadow of an orange colossus.
Yes, Trump was more civil in the second debate, and Biden, ahead in the polls, did himself no harm. Still, it was an affair of stunning mediocrity and myopia.
Let’s just posit for a moment that the rise of China, the assertiveness of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the resurgence of dictatorships, the fragility of democracies, the challenges of population growth in Africa, the pandemic’s exposure of a global leadership vacuum, rising inequality in Western societies, the frozen inadequacy of the United Nations, social fracture, the spread of the surveillance state, and the hate-multiplying impact of social media platforms may be pivotal issues of the coming decade.
What did we hear on these themes? Essentially nothing.
TV commentators went through their thing, opining on the significance of Biden looking at his watch, the importance (or not) of gazing directly into the camera, the punch Trump landed (or not) on Hunter Biden. I did not hear any laments on all that Trump’s America, in its America-first inward turn, has relegated to oblivion.
Oh, yes, Syria, where some 80% of the survivors of a civil war that left more than 400,000 people dead now live in poverty and 40% of people are unemployed. Oh, yes, Hong Kong, and Belarus, where brave protesters have been battling for democracy in struggles that would once have engaged the American imagination. Oh, yes, the Middle East, where so much American treasure and such sustained American diplomacy have been deployed in the pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian peace, and so many American and Iraqi lives were lost not so long ago in Iraq.
Gone, baby, gone.
The shrinking of the American mind involves a kind of numbness. It has become difficult to think or see beyond the noise emanating from the White House. Indignation fatigue has set in. There he goes again. That plaintive whining voice. Without respect for truth, without respect for science, what debate can there be?
In the end the debates amounted to a portrait of the growing irrelevance to the rest of the world of an insular United States. Two men in their 70s showed an almost complete disregard for the I-want-to-help-change-the-world idealism of Generation Z. This was close to insulting. The exchanges were, on the whole, petty, petulant and predictable.
In them, I saw the reflection of an American society in which constructive debate is near impossible. Trump has governed through fomenting division and violence. He has almost never risen to themes of reconciliation or outreach. As a result, American debate is reduced to rival tribes shrieking contempt for each other. These tribes forget that nobody ever had their mind changed by being made to feel stupid.
It’s worth examining some of the debates’ vanished words for a moment. The protection of human rights must always be a crucial American mission. Democracy is still the best defense of human dignity and freedom. Inequality continues to grow, eating away at the social fabric of societies, compounding injustice, a word mentioned once by Biden in the first debate. Guantánamo remains a stain on America’s conscience. Young men and women in the American military are out in dangerous far-flung places fighting terrorism.
The United Nations, the World Health Organization and the European Union are examples of multilateral organizations Trump’s United States has flouted to its cost. Britain and France are nuclear powers that are critical partners in an alliance (NATO) that has brought peace and stability to Europe. Africa, famously home to “shithole” countries for Trump, is where roughly two-thirds of population growth will occur between 2020 and 2050; its fate is also humanity’s.
Speaking of the future, America, as it approaches its 250th anniversary this decade, is still a young country. It is not yet preposterous to believe that its best days lie ahead. It is still a land of striving, space, churn and reinvention where what binds people is greater than what separates them, if only a leader would seek to heal rather than hate.
The essence of America is openness. History, geography, immigration and fate have established that. The shrinking of the American mind under Trump therefore amounts, for Americans, to a dangerous denial of themselves. Prolonged for another four years, in a second Trump term, it would negate the American idea, without which, at least for this immigrant, the United States, as conceived, with all its flaws, ceases to be.
Perhaps, in the end, the greatest usefulness of the debates was as a vivid illustration of just how far we have fallen.