The carpet for last night’s presidential debate was red. The set featured a bald eagle. The moderator carried a leather binder. It had all the trappings of a functioning American electoral system.
In the end, of course, it was only a set. After an interminable ninety minutes, it was rendered absurd by a president who has trashed so many of the other institutional norms of the country and the presidency.
For the past three and a half years, we have covered this man, and this administration, with a willful, Groundhog Day forgetfulness. Maybe this will be the day the briefing room isn’t a spigot of misinformation. Maybe for once we can quote his enablers without them lying. Maybe, over the sound of helicopters, the president will take responsibility. Yet, despite our urgent desire for normalcy, normal never happens. But we get up the next morning and do it all again.
Last night the political press counted down the minutes, gamed out the electoral college votes in play, speculated on debate strategies—pretended, in other words, that this time, on this night, Donald Trump would show up as a cogent, sentient leader.
Let’s put an end to this awful cycle. How about if, in the weeks left before the election, we try and cover this president for what he is, not what we want him to be? What if we try to be honest about what is happening, rather than trying to stuff Trump into a costume of normality that he refuses to wear anyway?
I cringed this morning when my phone pinged with a news alert from the New York Times: “Who won the debate?” it asked. The frame has lost all value. No one won the debate. There was no debate. Instead, there was a sitting president, angry, manic and abusive, wrecking the concept of a debate and mocking everyone who tried to make sense of it as anything else.
That’s the story. Old-school Twitter gasped when Dana Bash called the whole thing a “shit show” on CNN. But she was right, as was Rachel Maddow, when she began her post-debate segment on MSNBC calling into question the very notion of a post-debate discussion, given what had just happened.
Bash and Maddow are on the right track. The political press needs to take their lead. Let’s write about the thing that’s in front of us, as opposed to whatever it is we want it to be. Last night was about chaos and fear and the plain raving of a president who sees no path to a peaceful transfer of power. He said so before God and Chris Wallace and everyone else. The Proud Boys are standing by.
The fact that we have a president who has lost all mooring is itself the story, not a sidebar or an observation left to the opinion pages.
We have five weeks left. Let’s dispense with the artifice. When he seeks to change the subject with a ridiculous side show (Biden’s hidden ear piece!) ignore it or call it out for the absurdity it is. When he talks around his racism or his willingness to let people die from the coronavirus, point that out for what it is. When his spokespeople or acolytes spin events in ways that are farcical, call them propagandists and shut them down.
Good reporters are keen observers of the world around them. Tell us, finally, what you see.
Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.