There is no central air in my apartment. There is just a cylindrical fan, two feet tall and six inches in diameter, that wheezes and growls as it marches toward its third year of maintenance. There is no other defense against the summer heat, and when you live on an upper floor, like I do, you are very vulnerable indeed. This was the scene as set by Mother Nature for the next installment of the Democratic Party’s presidential debates, as I just couldn’t justify flying out to Detroit to watch the horror show in person. I probably could have found a “watch party” somewhere in town, or at least in Manchester, hosted by some bar where there might even be a functional air conditioner, but for some reason, this seemed more appropriate: with a tall glass of Boston rum punch at my side and my notepad and pen ready to work, I would sit in the dark, struggling to breathe, and watch a gang of psychopaths describe their strategy to suffocate us all.
Don’t misunderstand me: not everyone onstage is a psychopath. It’s just that the great majority of them are. Malice tips the scales in the presidential race, and the guilty pleasure of weighing seems to diminish every four years. It’s becoming harder and harder for these politicians to feign empathy or even sincerity, and in the absence of earnest enthusiasm, a televised debate becomes less of a pageant and more of a funeral. Then again, that might explain why the spectacle is growing all the more profitable for CNN and the other hosts of media conglomerates: maybe the audience prefers the desperate adrenaline produced by the sense of impending doom.
Last night, at least, I did not share their anticipation, even for much less ethereal reasons. Simply, I knew that only Marianne Williamson was capable of offering a thoughtful critique of American social structures, but I had very little hope that she would be permitted more than five minutes to speak. This is what I mean when I speak of the basic joy that is draining from our political rituals: the networks of mass media cannot acknowledge Williamson, not even to exploit her existential ruminations for ratings, all because she might raise an uncommonly solemn point about inherent faults in our social, political, or economic systems. It’s all well and good when Elizabeth Warren refers to “real, systemic change”, because she never endorses a specific change to the system, but as soon as you find a legitimate critic, then the media powerhouses pull out all the stops.
They will be especially diligent today, as Williamson is drawing attention for a comment she made about the “dark, psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country”. Predictably, that comment is abridged—or misquoted, really—in almost every account of last night’s debate as the “dark, psychic force of the Trump Administration”. This is hardly the only time that a critique of the broader American culture is reduced to a lazy swatting of Trump, but there is something especially sinister—an especially dark, psychic force—behind this quote’s proliferation: by honing in on Williamson’s criticism of Trump’s rhetorical approach, the media distracts us from her more pressing point, which is that people of color are especially likely to be the victims of lethal environmental degradation, including water pollution.
The subject of water pollution didn’t even come up until almost two hours into the debate, which is indefensible, considering that the debate was held in Detroit, of all places. I will admit that I do not read as much as I should about the devastation, both environmental and economic, of Detroit, as it is just too sickening to stomach. There is something especially lurid about that city’s misery, perhaps the fact that it was entirely preventable, the fact that it was brought about exclusively by reprehensible public policy and corporate interference. Before she entered Congress, Rashida Tlaib held an interview with Democracy Now in which she discussed the squandering of Detroit’s public revenues on sports stadiums while the city’s school districts cancel classes on Fridays due to a lack of funding. When the history of the fall of the American Empire is written, I suspect that Detroit will be the symbol of our moral decadence, representing our malignant immaturity and our misplaced priorities.
In the above video, Tlaib’s comments on public funding start at the eleven-minute mark. Alas, you didn’t have to wait nearly as long for the priorities to be misplaced at last night’s debate. I have no idea why John Delaney was given so much time to speak, considering how close he is to becoming the first candidate in history to poll in negative digits, but somehow, he became CNN’s preferred supporting actor on the night. In his hammy performance, he besought the audience to nominate him because he is a “moderate”, because many of his policies are effectively right-wing, because he is not too distinct from Donald Trump. He was bizarrely reminiscent of Clopin Trouillefou, kneeling onstage and begging, “Charity, if you please!”
Delaney wasn’t the only one to argue that the Democratic Party needs to become more like Donald Trump in order to defeat Donald Trump. Call it the political antibiotic. I vaguely understand where they’re coming from, but at the same time, it’s very surreal to see these people, who are fully aware that they are being watched by millions of people, reveal their plan to hoodwink Republican voters by imitating their preferred candidate. “This is how we’re going to trick conservatives: we’re going to pretend to be Trump! It’s foolproof! It worked for the Greeks in the Trojan War, so it must work for us!”
The Iliad, of course, doesn’t mention anything about the Trojan Horse. That didn’t come up until The Odyssey, presumably after Homer had a little more time to contemplate the Trojan War and how it could have been won. He did not, of course, hear about the horse having failed to fool the Trojans and then write a story about how the trick succeeded. Delaney and his minions, including Tim Ryan, are taking a very different approach: after facing direct evidence of the failure of insipid “moderation” in 2016, they insist upon following the same misguided strategy. I suppose there is a chance that things could turn out differently this time around, but only if the horse is driven by a more personable person than Hillary Clinton. There can be no greater insult to John Delaney than to inform him that he has even less charisma than Hillary, but even that may be insufficient to convince him to abandon the race.
And so this essay ends where it began: with a dispiriting acknowledgement of the superficiality of the debate. Delaney will try to convince you that he has an ideological objection to the progressive platform of Bernie Sanders, but he is obviously interested only in appearances, in presentability to an ignorant population. In that respect, he is actually quite similar to most of the other candidates, although he may be one of the most honest: how many other candidates will admit that they differ from Donald Trump in no substantive respect? Delaney is not a man of principles; he is just a face to be presented at the Empire’s façade. So are most of the other candidates, except they can wear their veneer more successfully than he.
One last thing before we go. Chris Cillizza wrote an incredibly bad piece on the debate for CNN, wherein he argued that John Delaney was one of the “winners”. That, however, was not his worst offense: he also took a sadistic swipe at Marianne Williamson, joyfully predicting that she will not appear in a future debate. If you have the time, please call him out on Twitter so he knows what a loathsome man he is.