National Post (Latest Edition)

So much worse has happened

- Rex Murphy

It’s a good guess Donald Trump is not a fan of Jane Austen. And for that matter I don’t see Joe Biden cosying up to Pride and Prejudice or Emma either. The properly lauded Ms. Austen is the most decorous of novelists, one whose works breathe a spirit of courtesy, good manners and discipline­d speech and behaviour.

I do not think any of her handful of mistresspi­eces would be on the bookshelve­s — assuming either have bookshelve­s — of either Mr. Trump or his adversary. Indeed there’s a small wager to be made that they may not even know her name or her novels.

“Jane,” as her devotees in the present day like to speak of her, for her part would not have liked the Biden-trump rumble. Pardon me, that is too weak. She would, in the deep 18th- century meaning of the term, have been appalled.

But enough of these stray observatio­ns. The first point I wish to make is that the debate was a wild, rambunctio­us, frequently rude mess. Not assisted or improved by the egotistica­l Chris Wallace who must, at some level, have thought he was one of the debaters.

This is the general verdict. And the mainline press spent most of Wednesday deploring the conduct of Mr. Trump ( as they will on all occasions) and to a lesser degree that of Mr. Biden (mercy toward him being another feature of current reportage). I can agree with the descriptio­ns, and like most others wish that presidenti­al debates held to a standard of civilized decorum, that a speaking contest between the two carried more substance, was expressive more of ideas than attacks, and gave young people something of a positive example of how people can disagree with one another, yet retain some manners and aim for a little elegance.

That’s where I stop. The horror being expressed over the debate, the numbers shocked and appalled, is seriously misplaced and overdrawn. It was a ( I don’t like this term but it fits here) lousy performanc­e by the both of them. But as an element of American politics it was one of the very last things for journalist­s, pundits and observers to get riled about. So much worse has happened, so much more profound mutilation­s of American democracy have marked these past four years, that to get excited by a bar room brawl of a debate seems petty.

A debate — even one as raw as Tuesday’s — is just a debate, a limited verbal exchange. Consider some other matters.

The Kavanaugh hearings, for example. These were a vicious assault, compounded of allegation­s of the vilest kind ( multiple “train” rapes being just one), all passed on without foundation or any real investigat­ion by the press. An honourable man and his family were put through a hearings grinder and subjected to manic character assassinat­ion. Much of the controvers­y evaporated or was proven the fantasy or fabricatio­n of a felonious lawyer ( Michael Avenatti). Once Brett Kavanaugh survived the attacks and was appointed to the U. S. Supreme Court, all his accusers simply walked away without consequenc­e to them, and the media that so eagerly carried the slanders likewise offered neither comment nor apology.

There was something to get worked up about. There’s an example of “decorum” savagely abandoned. The debate’s deficits were a toy to the cruelties and mischiefs of the Kavanaugh hearing.

The riots, and arson, and beatings and intimidati­ons that are taking place right now in many U. S. cities — in some cases, Portland, e. g., for over 100 full nights — are an outrageous violation of all civic canons, and are criminal to boot. Yet, for so many in the media, this assault on the very character of democracy, this threat to the civil peace of millions, hardly merits more than a passing reference and concern. Violence in the streets, people in black masks destroying property and injuring and in some cases even killing people — this is most grievous. And, pace the press, it is almost exclusivel­y coming from radical leftist organizati­ons. How can this be tolerated for so long? How can some try to excuse it? Compare a rotten debate to street thugs taking over parts of a modern city, demanding the modern equivalent of “danegeld,” and you see how insignific­ant the former is.

What of the three- year fabricatio­n, supported by some in the great investigat­ive agencies of the country, of the Russia collusion? Three years were spent on a concocted fantasy that Donald Trump was a Russian agent. It has been utterly discredite­d. Yet the legal and administra­tive apparatus of the U. S. government wasted three years on investigat­ions and hearings, and at the end we learned the whole thing sprang from a dossier paid for by the Clinton campaign, a dubious British ex- agent, and highly irregular if not outright illegal activities in the highest echelons of the FBI and CIA. They knew from the first it was a fixedup allegation.

What’s a rotten debate compared with Russiagate?

Finally, if the debate was messy and heated, it was but a slice, a glimpse of the state of American politics as a whole. Partisansh­ip has reach the level of insane intensity. Pro-trump and anti-trump partisans loathe each other with a loathing that is feral. Reason has fled from cross- party divisions. Anything goes if it can be levelled at the other side. Democracy is being mangled by the hatred each party has for the other.

In such a context the debate was but a trivial exemplar. If people wish to deplore the loss of civility and the abandonmen­t of decorum deplore the widespread, if not universal, abandonmen­t of both in American politics as a whole. And for all those in the media scorning the debate — look into the mirror. Media practice during the Trump years has been a farce of unbalanced “reportage,” atrocious opinionati­ng, and anti-trump obsessioni­sm. The media have never been so reckless and irresponsi­ble.

The debate was poor beyond poor, that we agree on. But American politics and practice over the past three plus years have been conducted on a gutter level all the way through. It’s a bit rich to highlight 90 minutes of debate as its major failing. The debate was merely in harmony with the great mass of the political process. When all of politics is crude and raw and careless and without scruple, where did the expectatio­n come from that Donald Trump and Joe Biden were going to elevate it?

American politics and practice over the past three plus years have been conducted on a gutter level.

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