Readers Write In #277: First American Presidential Debate 2020 as Reality TV

Posted on October 2, 2020

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(by Prasanna H)

The Real House-Whites of Trump and Biden

“Why do celebrities wash their dirty whites in public?” an exasperated Naseeruddin Shah once said. It really makes you wonder, especially when reality TV stars do it more professionally. It is not an exact quote, meaning Naseer would have denied it completely if he were Trump. If he were Biden, he would have called me a clown and asked me to shut up. You get the gist. I have not gone over the policy positions and the actual arguments in the debate here because they are discussed widely elsewhere.

The votes are in, and the first presidential debate between Trump and Biden was total chaos. It utterly failed as a political debate with both parties failing to prove why they are better as presidential candidates. They did not listen to the questions, put forth their policies coherently, and address the nation’s concerns regarding their ability to do their job. They failed as they attacked each other constantly over getting the facts wrong. Admittedly, this stems from Trump’s debating style of always discrediting the opponent without providing counterfacts or a valid alternative. However, Joe Biden used it to his full advantage by calling Trump a liar and a clown to divert from the flaws of his alternatives. Basically, they were calling each other a loser who doesn’t know what he is saying for an hour and a half.

First American Presidential Debate 2020 as Reality TV

So, how did it fare as TV? For people who tuned in for a gritty political debate, it was a disappointment. Unfortunately, it was also a disappointment for people who tuned in for the reality TV show.

However, it had all the elements of a well-produced reality TV show. Serious conflicts based on different positions held by similar people: Neither want to question the system that enables them to keep their power. Establishing assumptions only good for superficial arguments and not practical solutions: Neither can be held to their word regarding follow through of the policy positions they espoused in this debate. Raising the stakes by talking in hyperboles about how policies affect the people involved: Rather than be vulnerable, listen to people, and understand what they are going through, these candidates are only concerned about their voting perspectives. Seemingly neutral third-party hosting the conflict showdown: By making quirky observations and laughing off the flaws, the third-party ensures the real problems remain untouched while being completely aware of it, playing both candidates off each other.

Then, why did it fail?

Like every other reality TV show, the characters make or break the show. Both candidates were seriously guarded and lacked a basic range of emotional reactions. They were exasperated when interrupted, indifferent to name-calling, and not invested in their relationship with the audience enough to make the presidential debate work. There was so much bitterness it reminded me of the wedding lunch at which my Chithi grabbed the bucket of rasam, went to the caterer, and asked him if he made it with bitter gourd juice. [She stopped the lunch, gathered a few others, and fixed the rasam with lime juice. I wonder why America keeps its Chithis from power.] In the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Kim was medicated and unable to respond coherently when Brandi called Kim’s sister a bitch. But she was so intent on defending her sister that she infamously called Brandi a slut pig. Unlike Kim, Donald Trump, especially, was just numb to all the name-calling. This showdown was devoid of the emotional back and forth that provides the uncanny whimsy of reality TV. Trump talked at everyone and refused to acknowledge any other point of view, even ones favorable to him. Biden tried to win his votes by talking to the people, rather than to Trump. For him, it was a speech and not a debate. This closed off, repetitive sledging was bad reality TV. After Trump attacked Biden’s son Hunter, Biden said he was proud of Hunter because he worked through a drug problem. Trump said Obama didn’t do his job, and so they were fired, a callback to his days firing people on reality TV. Momentarily, it made them human. Otherwise, it was one note, devoid of warmth, camaraderie, or respect to anyone.

Over the years, Trump’s rhetoric has become so predictable that Biden could read a prepared script, including reactions and comebacks, and make it work. Trump is a seasoned reality TV host, and he does the basics really well: deny everything, make counteraccusations. He broke the rules by interrupting far more than Biden, constantly questioned the credibility of the neutral host, and made personal attacks against his opponent. His arguments were incoherent and denials blatant as usual, but not enough to make him seem honest. In the previous election too, his premises were flawed and his statements were illogical, but the force with which he backed them was vehement and stoic. It created a fortress for him and his supporters to fight the enemy. This has considerably withered. For example, he started talking about forest cities in Europe in response to a question on climate change’s effects; it wasn’t coherent enough as a response or a vehement attack on climate change consensus through emotional storytelling. This vague in-between was a feature throughout that dulled down any position he took and made it unengaging, a new low for Trump. He was just taking blows lying down.

Joe Biden, on the other hand, kept talking about plans. He loses it right at the beginning, saying he is the Democratic party now, possibly to show strength against future attacks of being a radical left puppet. Biden comes off as factually vague and egotistic. But, Trump’s own ego drowns these out as problems. Biden uses every two seconds of silence he gets to address the people directly. He matches Trump gesture for gesture with exasperation and denial of lies. He comes out better at name-calling than Trump. Biden called Trump Goebbels before the debate. He calls Trump Putin’s puppy in the debate, which is an alliteration easier to remember than all of Trump’s rants about the radical left holding Biden hostage.

Reality TV is unique because it mimics reality, not the three act stories with a hero, a villain, and closure. There are no definitive winners and losers here, only winning and losing positions. It is about engaging in your core emotion to the extent of indulgence, taking an emotional situation and milking it to the fullest. If they make it engaging enough, reality TV stars who assume a winning position can lose and those who assume a losing position can win. 

Trump is a career reality TV star. He positions himself along one story: he was betrayed, and so are his people, by those who make him lose. In the COVID crisis, China betrayed them. In the Paris climate accords, emerging nations (including India) betrayed them. In immigration, Mexico betrayed them. In everything else, the Democrats betrayed them. To be betrayed and to assume a position of a loser, you have to lose something. But the loss has to be superficial for him to still be in the game. These losses are real.

The very reality TV instincts that proved vital in his victory in 2016 are endangering him here. He has already won and the experience in the White House has been fraught, wearing him down, because he has to constantly play the losing position. He says that if he loses, the election process, essentially America’s democracy, was betrayed. Unfortunately, real-life events like death of a loved one, divorce, adultery, and break-up play an important part in the plots of reality TV. The cruel indifference of reality TV usually involves playing personal losses as a losing position to win audiences. The sublime irony of reality TV is that the very reality that is trivialized and minimized provides great material for superficial storytelling, often co-conspiring with the showrunners. Therefore, to milk this situation to the fullest, Trump has to lose the election so that he can win the reality TV show. He and his people keep fantasizing how colossal a betrayal his loss in the election would be. And he wants to lose; all his reality TV instincts tell him to. When the world’s most powerful man wants something, he usually gets it.

Being a career politician, Biden sees this farce and refuses to debate Trump. So, Trump is carrying on this farce on his own. Biden has clearly fallen into the niche where everything untoward he does is a reaction to Trump, and therefore not reflective of who he is. If he wins, Biden promises relief from Trump’s aggression, and given that people have had a tumultuous year, they may prefer it. But, Trump losing and Biden winning are two different things. It is very clear that Biden needs people to want him, not just want to let go of Trump. So, we have to wait and see if he lets Trump lose as he did in the first debate.

Of course, the actual result of the election depends on so much more than this reality TV show. COVID, national economy, and environmental disasters are all real issues that have consequences for real people including these reality TV presidential candidates. While the consequences are real and terrifying for them too, they have to project an alternative narrative that makes these issues engaging. Unfortunately, they are the ones with real power to create systems of support to get us through this problem. Thus, it is clear that the reality from which this debate distracts us is the one that matters.

The problem with this reality TV style debate isn’t that one can lie and get away with it. When the lies do get called out, it becomes immaterial because it has already made the desired impact. The problem is that the truth and facts become immaterial. We have the distractions of reality TV so that we can deal with reality, not the other way around. The consumption of lies gives immediate gratification, canceling any value that this debate can inform any policy decision in the future. With the U.S. presidential debates becoming one bad reality TV show, it seems the systems by which people choose who govern them need dramatic changes to work. Until then, people really are on their own against these unprecedented issues, unfairly burdening our Chithis to fix it.