Rather than watch the Presidential debate on Tuesday night, I should have gone to sleep at my normally early hour. Sleep would have come more easily.
If American democracy is intended to offer spirited, but civil conversation for the sake of the public, we witnessed something resembling a verbal school-yard brawl. It was unseemly, if not outright disgusting.
My views are mine. I couldn’t fathom prolonging my misery by listening to pundits tell me what I just saw. It was bad enough the first time.
President Trump was primed for a fight. Civil discussion of policy was a mere sideshow for him. He wanted to batter his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, through insults and derogatory comments delivered during constant interruptions.
Trump’s strategy was predicted: he sought to bait Biden into a temper tantrum. He wanted to spotlight what he considers Biden’s senility.
What I saw was an alarming display of un-presidential behavior, something that I hoped I would never observe in real time. If it were calculated, as was likely the case, it makes the president’s performance seem even more disgraceful. Trump didn’t even pretend to be a statesman. He preferred to be a showman, misusing the dignity of a debate as a platform for hurling lies and recriminations.
For his part, Biden also engaged in mudslinging, calling the president a “fool,” a “clown” and the worst president in American history. While I would agree that Biden’s adjectives are alarmingly accurate, I never thought I would hear those words used in a nationally televised presidential debate.
Our country suffers not just from Covid-19 and sadly lacking, race-baiting leadership in the wobbly White House, but from loss of civility and respect. These two pillars of human character no longer seem to provide the glue that unites us despite all of our differences.
Our communities are sapped of strength and vibrancy when our social fabric is frayed by dissent and personal attacks.
Democracy requires healthy disagreement. It must reconcile the views of many. Respectful dialogue is the fuel for a functional democracy.
What our country and the world saw on Tuesday night was a damaging affront to the social compact that underscores an effective democratic government. Insults poison the discourse and preclude compromise. Ugly, dysfunctional polarization results.
Our president feels no need to lead with character and consideration. Though he tried hard to avoid useless mudslinging, Biden also participated in the name-calling.
We are the victims of a political school-yard brawl. We watched the holy mess, set in our opinions. We witnessed what we wanted to witness. But we heard little substantive policy and thought by our top elected leader, who is a master of deception and distraction.
We deserve better. Far better.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.