The debate disaster, ending the elections problem, and fixing messy history
by Rob Tiller
The presidential debate this week was difficult to watch, but gave us plenty to think about. President Trump seemed to be impersonating an angry wingnut conspiracy monger’s all caps Twitter account. When Biden threatened to say something interesting, Trump interrupted with ugly taunts, sarcastic asides, baseless accusations, bizarre lies, and shouts of incoherent nonsense.
Judged by any normal standards of civil discourse, Trump’s performance was not just disgusting but bizarre. Why would anyone do that? But perhaps there was a method in the madness. Trump’s performance seemed designed to make people stop watching politicians and thinking about politics.
And that would make some sense. If people kept watching, they might like Biden even better, and the pending anti-Trump landslide might get even bigger. Given Biden’s success so far, it would make some sense for the pro-Trump forces to try to make everyone so sick of the political process that they tune out and stay home.
The debate was such a fiasco that the commission in charge is talking about revising the rules for the remaining two debates. One idea is to cut off the mike of the candidate who refuses to shut up according to the rules. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t prevent a crazy orange haired candidate from distracting the other candidate by shouting bizarre lies.
So I have an idea! Remember those cake stands with glass covers that show nicely decorated cakes? We could make a very large soundproof cake stand cover and suspend it with a motorized cable above the candidates. Then when a candidate shifts into Tweeting madman mode, the moderator could lower the cover. We could observe the candidate smirking, scowling, and gesticulating, but would be able to listen to what the other candidate was trying to say. After some suitable penalty period (say, 3 minutes), the moderator could raise the cake stand, and the out-of-control candidate would get another chance to behave normally and play by the rules.
In the debate this week, Trump declined to condemn white supremacists, and tried to blame left wingers for violent incidents associated with peaceful Black Lives Matter protests. He spoke approvingly of a violent racist group called the Proud Boys. If all that weren’t horrifying enough, he encouraged his followers to gather at polling places to discourage non-supporters from voting, and again claimed that the election is going to be fraudulent.
With President Trump all but promising to declare our next presidential election invalid unless he wins, he continues to force us to think more about American democracy. I’ve always thought of elections as one of the least interesting things about the American system, because they were generally simple and uncontroversial. We voted, the votes were counted, and the person with the most votes won.
Now, to be sure, there have always been problems with our elections, such as excluding Black people, women, and others from the process during much of our history. But I thought the worst of that was in the past, and that one thing most Americans were justifiably proud about was having more or less free and fair elections.
If only! It sounds like Trump and a significant number of his followers who propose to Make America Great Again are ready to stop having those old fashioned elections. Is it really possible that there are seemingly normal people who think 1. this is a great country and also 2. we should quit having free and fair elections? Even if their adored potential dictator were someone of much higher quality than Trump, this seems like a thing you would oppose if you cared at all about our country.
I don’t want to cause unnecessary panic. I’m still fairly sure that stopping fair elections and making Trump our supreme leader is the dream of only a minority, and the majority will not buy it. But Trump is making unmistakeable and unprecedented threats to dismantle our most fundamental institutions, including elections, and we can’t take it as a joke. We need to vote and encourage voting like never before, and like the future of our democracy is at stake.
The movement to dispense with elections may have something to do with weaknesses in our system for teaching history. A lot of history education is badly done, and leaves students with the mistaken impression that history is boring. As an enthusiastic amateur of American history, I was intrigued to hear about President Trump’s new history initiative, the 1776 Project.
But I quickly got less excited. The 1776 Project seems to be an effort to reinforce the traditional triumphalist narrative in American history and suppress the fuller understanding coming into view from sources like the 1619 Project. The latter is an effort begun last year at the New York Times to shine light on formative aspects of our national experience that we’ve mostly tried hard to forget, like slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and contemporary discrimination.
The 1619 Project sparked a lively discussion of the meaning of race and the roots of our existing power structure, and it’s well worth reading and talking about. My guess is that the 1776 Project turns out to be nothing more than another cynical election year Trump lie-promise. It probably won’t even rev up the base very much, since most of them hated high school history, quickly forgot the little they learned, and have no interest in ever thinking about history again.
As of this writing, it looks like the chances are good that Trump himself will be history come January 20, 2021. But if we should be so unfortunate as to have to revise American history to fit the Trumpian vision, it would be fairly easy. Essentially, we’d just censor all the unpleasant stuff that clutters up the MAGA narrative, and get over any last shreds of reluctance to celebrate white supremacy.
For example, here’s a prototype of a 1776 Project history quiz. See how you do!
- Prior to the Civil War, life in the American south was:
- Romantic, with gallant men and pretty girls in flowing gowns
- Opulent, with tremendous profits from cotton, which allowed for building lovely mansions with columns with grand lawns
- Lively and stimulating, with big parties and fine horses
- Generally harmonious, except for the occasional duel to preserve gentlemanly honor
- How well were American slaves treated before the Civil War?
- Not bad. They got whipped and tortured, but generally only when they failed to do as instructed
- Fairly well. Otherwise, why didn’t they escape?
- Well. They got to sing those lovely spirituals and do lively dances
- Quite well. They got free room and board, and we should all be so lucky
- What was the most remarkable achievement of the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups following the Civil War?
- Mass imprisonment of former slaves on vague charges such as vagrancy and loitering
- Widespread lynchings on false charges of improper relations with white women
- Preventing Black people from living outside designated areas and from socializing with white people
- Violence that intimidated former slaves into not voting
- What was eugenics?
- A pseudo scientific theory developed in the late 19th century and widely accepted in America that classified the white race as superior
- A movement that used forced sterilization and other measures to reduce reproduction rates of non-white people so as to improve population genetics
- The intellectual basis for Hitler’s final solution
- All of the above
- What is the significance of Black Lives Matter protests against police systems that regularly harass, brutalize, and kill Black people?
- No idea
- They clearly make no sense
- They are part of a plot by leftists to kill police and bring anarchy
- They show the need for mobilizing massive force against Black people and their supporters in the hellhole cities so as to prevent invasion of beautiful white people’s suburbs
See, it wasn’t that difficult! In Trumpworld (as opposed to reality), every single answer is entitled to full credit. Needless to say, I’m hoping we’ll be leaving the false and racist history of Trumpworld very soon, and continuing the struggle towards racial equality and justice.
If you’re interested in learning more about how American schools teach history, I recommend Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James Loewen, which I’ve been re-reading. The title is a bit of an oversell (it doesn’t literally have “everything”), but Loewen has a lively style and gives bracing accounts of some of the key distortions regarding our forebears that most of us got indoctrinated with.