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Make The Next Debates Better. Or Cancel Them Altogether

Moderator Chris Wallace speaks to President Donald Trump and Former Vice President Joe Biden during the first presidential debate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Moderator Chris Wallace speaks to President Donald Trump and Former Vice President Joe Biden during the first presidential debate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Having just endured the first presidential debate, I think I can safely speak for all of us victim viewers in noting … that didn’t go well.

In fact, it was doomed to fail. Why? Because Donald Trump has spent four years treating the presidency like one never-ending Fox News segment. He has grown accustomed to rallies and press conferences where his soliloquies of self-pity and conspiracy mongering are the norm, and where he displays his version of “dominance” by constantly interrupting, insulting and inciting.

The fact that the Commission on Presidential Debates didn’t see this coming is inexcusable. It no longer has that excuse.

If the Commission wants to restore its reputation — and offer the public a debate that forces the candidates to articulate their policies, rather than throwing mud — it needs to adjust the rules for the upcoming debates.

This is not rocket science.

In fact, anyone who has dealt with a toddler — or an insecure, angry, verbally abusive relative — knows the solution. You need to create a structure with external limits.

The Commission has the power, and the duty, to make sure its future events don’t degenerate into chaotic brawls.

The ensuing debates, should be structured into segments of 1 to 3 minutes, during which only one candidate is allowed to speak. To insure this happens, the microphone of the other candidate should be turned off until it’s time for them to speak.

Period.

It’s sad that we’ve reached this point, but it’s also obvious. The president cannot control his impulses, or surrender the advantages of his bully pulpit. No moderator will be able to hold him to account, or contain his hysterical outbursts. If the Commission intends to host a debate on the issues, this is the only solution.

Likewise, the Commission should empower an independent fact-checking organization who can let viewers know if the claims being made by each candidate are true, mostly true, misleading or false.

This might not deter the candidates from making false and slanderous statements, but it would create a set of consequences for lying to the American people. And — gasp — defend the truth from serial liars, as Trump proved himself to be once again last night.

The Commission has the power, and the duty, to make sure its future events don’t degenerate into chaotic brawls. Its leadership can actually adjust to reality and impose rules. If they fail to do so, they are complicit in their own demise. If they refuse to make their rules respond to reality, it should cancel the upcoming debates.

The media needs to stop portraying last night as a chaotic, “norm-breaking” cacophony. It was, in fact, a clarion call.

For all the noise generated last night, it is vital to acknowledge one chilling revelation that did emerge. Granted the opportunity to condemn right-wing white supremacist extremists, our sitting president not only refused, but told a violent extremist group to “stand back and stand by.” Stand by for what? Presumably, the moment when it becomes clear that he has lost the election, or is going to lose, once all the votes are counted. He signaled that he is not only willing, but eager to trigger civil unrest as a means of making sure he can hold on to power.  The Proud Boys took the president’s words as marching orders, and openly celebrated before the night was over.

Despite years of voter suppression, despite a huge structural advantage in the Electoral College, Trump is losing the election. Like any autocrat who feels imperiled, he won’t go down without a fight. The fight is his safety net.

The media needs to stop portraying last night as a chaotic, “norm-breaking” cacophony. It was, in fact, a clarion call.

We the people, the voters, are the last barricade, the last check on a modern tyrant. If we don’t show up in historic numbers, what we saw last night will go down in history as merely the discordant prelude to the end of American democracy.

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Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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