The first debate between the incumbent president, Donald Trump, and his opponent, sen. Joseph Biden can be roundly summed up as a series of ad hominem attacks, crazed ramblings, confused looks, and blatant mistruths. It was like a 250 year old institution of democracy had become nothing more than a farce; as if the debate itself was parody, with the usual deceit and vanity of politicians being taken to eleven. And we all got to watch the absurd circus with our mouths ajar either laughing or crying. What appears to be the end of democracy, however, is very much a step to its renewal. This is because the premiere 2020 debate was far more effective than any in living memory at revealing the true characters of not only the candidates on stage, but American politics in their entirety.
Since the 1980s and the election of Ronald Reagan, politics have been dominated by image. The politician seeks to present to you a mask, a picture of themselves that you (the viewer) can somehow relate to, even though your existences are probably as different as two human beings’ can possibly be. This importance of presentation over the real extends beyond the relatable characters politicians attempt to project, and extend to national, and even worldwide events. The two most salient examples of this come in war and in the economy. In war, we may be shown images of toppling statues of dictators, of surrendering armies, of the American flag rising over a now liberated city. But where are the dead? What do the bodies of those incinerated by drone strikes look like? We don’t know, because that’s not the image your preferred media platform wants to show you. With regards to the economy, you hear about the Dow Jones Industrial Average, you see a rising line on a graph and this is supposed to represent the entirety of American financial security and stability. Do you have anything invested in stocks? Do you own a business trying to appeal to shareholders? No, but you’ve come to associate the health of the stock market with the wellbeing of America, and thereby your own.
This state of post-modern development is what the philosopher Jean Baudrillard called “the hyperreal”: a society in which image has surpassed reality in importance, and therefore imposes itself on reality. To use Baudrillard’s own metaphor, the map has become the territory. Neither Baudrillard, nor I would argue that the ascendancy of the hyperreal is intentional; advertising, through its ability to create associations between a feeling and a product—or a presidential candidate—has come to alter our perception, and thus the way we consume and whom we vote for.
Despite having a reputation as a “progressive” and a presidential tenure many Americans look back fondly on, Barrack is a perfect example of a hyperreal president. Running a campaign with a simple slogan of change, Obama presented himself as an outsider to politics, someone to take on the establishment and lead an economically beleaguered and war-weary country into a new era of peace and financial security. Yet during his presidency, he continued the neoliberal economic policies and warmongering of his predecessor, vastly expanding the United States’ drone program (responsible for the deaths of between roughly 400-800 civilians), and even making an attempt in 2014 to make major cuts to Social Security. But Obama was stately, restrained, and professional; he spoke like a president and a man who believed what he promised. The effective hyperreal president must above anything look like a president.
Donald Trump, however, is a beast of a very different sort; untactful, ill-mannered, impulsive, one would assume that he lacks the ability to adeptly wear the mask necessary to control hearts and minds: this is both true and false. Because the image Donald Trump projects of not only himself, but the world is so distanced from objective truth, he either drags those who believe him into what is for all intents and purposes a separate reality, or kills his own credibility to a degree that makes anything he says irreconcilable with the the perceptions of the even incredulous. In this way, Donald Trump is the apotheosis of the hyperreal president: he has taken the typical mendaciousness and egotism of your average skinsuit-wearing lizard and worn it so unconvincingly that you must either dismiss him or dismiss reality itself.
The Democrats have also learned to take the hyperreal to its greatest extreme. Over the course of Joe Biden’s presidential race, the man has had gaf after verbal flub, been downright incoherent during some addresses, all throwing his cogency into some serious doubt. And yet, he is still upheld as the next prospective president of the United States. The senator has a track record of voting conservative within his party, but following the suspension of the Sanders and Warren campaigns, attempted to bill himself as a progressive—a label which he had no compunctions about distancing himself from during his debate with the president. Again, we see the image presented to us by authority figures as so great from what we’ve seen, what our unalloyed perceptions tell us, that you would need to have some 1984-level cognitive dissonance in order to deny either Donald Trump’s obvious charlottenry or Joe Biden’s clearly superficial turn to the left.
But then, there are plenty of people with such an elasticity of thought, a frontal lobe so malleable that perhaps even a pill this big is not too much to swallow: there are people who buy into the brilliant business acumen of Donald Trump, and there are people who think a man who forgets his own name is the most electable candidate. It would be nice to believe that there is a breaking point, a moment at which tension between what we see and what we’re told becomes too great, and the grand artifice of modern American politics snaps. But there’s a convenience in the illusion that the people at the controls have your best interests in mind, or at least know what they’re doing. You give up the responsibility you have to your community, your country, and the world, when you can simply believe that whoever’s in charge is doing the right thing. There’s no need to intervene, no need to be proactive; you can simply not think about it.
If there’s one thing we can take away from 2020’s first presidential debate, it’s that no one is bothering to pull the wool over our eyes anymore: the charlottenry of debates, of presidential candidates, of politics in the impotent form they currently embody is apparent. The highest office in the land will be handed to one of the two dopes we saw flail about on that stage, and the American people will be faced with a choice of greater meaning than whether the man in the White House has an “R” or a “D” in front of their name on the ballot. They must decide whether to surrender their responsibility to their fellow humans and the world to the incapable and uncaring hands of the powerful, or themselves take up the fight against the great evils of our age: climate change, racial injustice, and man-made austerity. For the latter to happen, however, people must first reject the hyperreal; a task that, thanks to the two aforementioned highly-skilled debaters, is easier than ever.