The presidential debates: the media frames it all wrong

The template set by the historic Lincoln-Douglas debates was a battle of ideas. Modern American political debates, by contrast, occupy a stage where both candidates move to the middle and try to capture centrist or independent voters.

President Donald J. Trump shattered this conventional frame in 2016, using his platform to deepen his base and to clearly articulate his ideological positions rather than using ambiguous language for fear of offending any potential voting blocs. Actor Rashida Jones aptly captured the mood of the debates in the preceding election cycle in her tweet: “His condescending interjections and interruptions and mansplaining are hitting the deepest part of my womanly frustration.” That may have been true for her, except for the fact that Trump carried half the white female vote. While Trump emerged as a bad hombre in jokes and memes, the annotated transcript of the debate with Hillary Clinton in The Washington Post sounded no less funny than the jabs hurled by satirists.

In 2020, Trump continued following the script that had given him the earlier victory, while the media kept pursuing the frame they had got so wrong. In the first 2020 presidential debate, Trump successfully pushed Joe Biden to denounce his “far left” Bernie Sanders supporters, an important part of the base he needed to consolidate, while at the same time Trump declined to openly critique the white supremacists, telling the Proud Boys to “Stand back and stand by,” which has now become their logo.

The second presidential debate was more restrained and substantive, with the media quickly declaring Biden the winner of this debate as well, and the polls reflecting a jump in Biden’s support. The fly on Vice President Mike Pence’s hair stole the limelight of the vice-presidential debate, as neither contender was able to articulate a comprehensive plan to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. Their proposed solutions fell into binary oppositions of masks versus no masks, or listening to science versus economic shutdowns, triggering ready-made parodies for mutually exclusive audiences.

The media has always berated Trump for not being presidential enough, for lacking decency and decorum, and for bullying behavior. While these accusations may be true, Trump was never playing by the rules set by the media. He was projecting himself as a strong leader, always in charge and not afraid to fight, someone who would never abandon his supporters. This impression was not intended for anyone who was undecided or making a rational decision to vote, but rather the non-voter who might get passionately aroused and head to the polling booth. Instead of moderating the tone and tenor of his message, the tone and tenor was the message in both his campaigns.

Saturday Night Live presented a thorough critique of both candidates, ostensibly focused on mannerism and locution, while at the same time revealing the hollowness of their respective platforms. SNL’s exposés often contain extemporaneous social or political introspection that escaped the radar of most media and popular culture venues. The argument about who built the cages and put migrant children there was at least allowed in satire, especially in tweets and memes, compared to the news media’s lack of political analysis of the systematic dehumanization embodied in asylum policy occurring over multiple presidencies.

Trump constructed a distinctive brand in 2016—anti-liberal elite, anti-immigration (both legal and illegal), anti-corporate power, anti-global war—which found takers in the loyal Republican base as well as new voters for whom the message resonated. Four years into power, some of the economic promises have been shattered by the tax cuts, trade wars, and global pandemic, yet the battle over culture has reached a pinnacle. The Trump brand of nationalism is carved out of the economic frustration of the working poor who feel left behind, as they seek to claim the cultural space from which they have been absent so long. The 2020 presidential debates reflected a renewed commitment toward Trump’s message that had worked in the previous election.

Despite the abhorrent mismanagement of the pandemic and the resultant spike in deaths, tens and thousands of people attended the Trump rallies as the polls prior to Election Day kept narrowing. Biden eked out a victory based on razor-thin margins in battleground states, but the space for Trumpism in American politics and culture will be much harder to dissolve. Neither the news media nor satire had an explanation for passionate attendance at Trump rallies, except to denigrate them as superspreader events. A rare plausible analysis came from Tucker Carlson who focused on the needs of the attendees rather than Trump. Herein lies the abject failure of popular culture, whether serious or funny, offering a singular frame of dismissiveness toward Trump presidency, while missing the consistent paradigm of Trumpism.

The role of satirists should be to uncover neglected recesses that contain significant meaning for cultural or political life. The role of journalists should be to provide nuanced backstories to contextualize current events. But both journalists and satirists have been focused too much on Trump’s provocative statements and actions and their offending nature, disregarding the reason for the appeal of such statements to a huge segment of Americans. Trump has articulated the frustrations of a large group of people who feel disposable in the global economy, and they will continue to claim allegiance to a committed leader, whether it is Trump or a successor.