The true losers of this presidential debate were the American people | Rebecca Solnit

The American people lost the debate last night, and it was more painful than usual to watch the parade of platitudes and evasions that worked in the debate format run by CNN. The network’s glossy pundit-moderators started by ignoring the elephants in the room – that one of the two men standing at the podiums was a convicted felon, the leader of a coup attempt, an alleged thief of national security documents who was earlier this year found liable in a civil court for rape, and has promised to usher in a vengeful authoritarian regime if he returns to office.

Instead they launched the debate with the dead horse they love to beat in election years, the deficit and taxes. Throughout the excruciating evening, Joe Biden in a hoarse voice said diligent things that were reasonably true and definitely sincere; Donald Trump in a booming voice said lurid things that were flamboyantly untrue. The grim spectacle was a reminder that this is a style over substance game.

Debates are a rite in which not truth but showmanship wins the day, and in which participants get judged as though it was a sporting event – which it pretty much is, in high school and college debate events. Before 2016, presidential debates were relatively decorous events in which the participants slammed each other, but more or less within the parameters of the true and the real with maybe a little distortion and exaggeration.

Then came Trump. You cannot win a debate with a shameless liar, because what you’re supposed to be debating are facts and positions. A lie is a kind of poison; once it’s in the room it makes an impression that is hard to undo, and trying to undo it only amplifies it.

Trump’s positions on anything and everything shift and slide at will, and he lies about his own past with pathological confidence – in this debate he both denied that he had sex with Stormy Daniels and that he praised the white supremacists who stormed Charlottesville in 2017. More substantively he lied – unchallenged, except by Biden – about his role in the January 6 coup attempt, and the CNN pundits did not trouble him further about his crimes. Trump talked about whatever he wanted – asked about the opiates crisis, he reverted to the lurid stories about sex crimes and open borders that obsess him and inflame his followers.

Most outrageous of all, and of course utterly unchecked, was one of the outrageous falsehoods Trump has been pushing for years – the claim that abortion continues on into infanticide, that doctors and new mothers are murdering babies at birth. That one candidate has long supported reproductive rights and the other has led the attack on them was not something you would learn from this debate.

Debates exist so that people can hear from the candidates, which makes sense when they’re relative unknowns. We’ve heard plenty from both of them for 40 years or so, since Biden was a young congressman and Trump was a young attention-seeker in New York City’s nightclubs and tabloids, and both of them have had the most high-profile job on earth for four years.

We didn’t need this debate. Because 2024 is not like previous election years, and the reasons it’s not are both that each candidate has had plenty of time to show us who they are and because one of them is a criminal seeking to destroy democracy and human rights along with the climate, the economy and international alliances. If you are too young to remember 2017-2021, this would not help you figure that out.

As political journalist John Nichols put it, “CNN is illustrating how a ‘debate’ where the moderators reject the basic responsibility of fact-checking in real time, and refuse to challenge blatantly false statements, is not a debate. It’s a chaos where lies are given equal footing with the truth.”

Much has been said about the age of the candidates, but maybe it’s the corporate media whose senility is most dangerous to us. Their insistence on proceeding as though things are pretty much what they’ve always been, on normalizing the appalling and outrageous, on using false equivalencies and bothsiderism to make themselves look fair and reasonable, on turning politics into horseraces and personality contests, is aiding the destruction of the United States.

The major American newspapers have been unable or unwilling to convey to the voting public that the fate of the country and its constitution are at stake, that the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 is a game plan for authoritarian rule and the loss of long-protected rights for many kinds of Americans.

Trump dodged a mild question about taking action on climate change, and though moderator Dana Bash brought him back to the subject he then just boasted about how under his reign we had “the cleanest” air and water, on the very day that the US supreme court justices he appointed savaged yet another piece of environmental protection. The highly-paid pundits could have asked him about his recent promise to leaders of the oil and gas industry that he’d serve their interests if they donated $1bn to his campaign.

Because it’s not just the fate of the US but of life on earth that’s at stake in this election; in 2016, the US undermined global cooperation on climate by electing Trump, who withdrew us from the Paris climate treaty, installed Exxon’s longtime CEO as his first secretary of state, and went to war against environmental protections. Biden has a flawed record but many huge achievements on climate – plus less huge ones too many and complex to bring up in a debate format.

But the hacks running the debate were no more interested in substance or the fate of the country or the earth than Trump. They were putting on a show, and they were putting it on as though we still lived in a world that no longer exists. By so doing they further endangered the world in which we do exist.

The Guardian