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CNN’s Jake Tapper is a highly conventional and thus highly respected news anchor. The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro is a venomous toad beneath contempt and unworthy of recognition. In setting them side-by-side I risk tarnishing Tapper’s good name, but it’s worth it to make a point about the press corps’ coverage of Tuesday’s debate.
Shapiro, a right-wing propagandist, is at home in the gutter. His intentions are so malicious, indeed so transparently malicious, that I’m not going to bother proving it (Google him if you must but such an effort, though small, gives him more benefit of the doubt than he deserves). Tapper’s aren’t, of course. They are meant in good faith. But both deployed the same journalistic strategy last night.
While Tapper used “balance” to communicate a high-minded, even-handed though ultimately mild disgust with the current state of American politics, Shapiro used “balance” to hide his poisonous bad faith. Tapper declared that “The American people lost tonight”; Shapiro announced, “I just know we all lost.” By pretending not to know who won the first of three scheduled debates, it made it seem like the president’s attempt to bite out the heart of the republic was too close to call. It was in keeping with partisan politics-as-usual.
Tapper wasn’t the only member of the Washington press corps to whitewash right-wing propaganda and thus make it respectable. On Twitter, CNN’s Oliver Darcy rounded up some of the headlines from last night: “CNN: ‘Pure chaos at the first debate’; NYT: ‘Sharp Personal Attacks and Name Calling in Chaotic First Debate’; HuffPost: ‘ROUND 1: MAYHEM’; BuzzFeed: ‘DEBATE NIGHT: THE GREAT AMERICAN SHITSHOW.’”
“Shitshow” evolved into the evening’s theme. CNN’s Dana Bash used the colorful phrase on live TV. The Times’ Alex Burns used it on the paper’s daily podcast. “Shitshow” seemed to capture two things valuable to members of the press corps: a measure of fairness to the candidates and the disapproval demanded by news consumers putting more and more pressure on elite reporters to speak truth to power. Neither is true, and the formulation is harmful to the republic.
By characterizing the debate as a “shitshow” in which Donald Trump and Joe Biden were equally bad and equally good, reporters were refusing to see, and therefore failing to report, what was really going on. The candidates were involved in unrelated projects. Biden was debating the president with the goal of persuading a majority of voters to come around to his side. That’s pretty standard stuff. Trump wasn’t playing democracy, though. His goal was to attack Biden—and to attack the very concept of “fact,” “reason,” “evidence,” “coherence,” and “debate.” The point was dominating his opponent, and therefore the television audience, with cascading falsehoods and lies. In other words, “shitshow” was his goal. Only the Washington Post got it right: “Trump plunges debate into fiery squabbling.”
The Washington press corps does not have the skills, the tools, or the value system to properly handle a president who is a near-total inhabitant of an unreality of his own making. So it does what it knows how to do. It checks facts. Fact-checking, to be sure, has some utility but cannot, and will not, reach people who project onto the world a compulsive fetish for dominance or who are indifferent to the social contract of our common understanding. People who believe lies are not going to change their minds when corrected. They’ll just find other lies to believe in, other lies for the fact-checkers to chase. As a result, reporters are trapped in an abusive relationship proportional to their unwillingness to confront their abuser.
Fortunately, Joe Biden modeled a way forward. His performance demonstrated ways to save a liberal democracy from the mistake of electing a demi-despotic goon. One was mockery. Biden called Trump “Putin’s puppy” and a “clown” who “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Mockery stabs at Trump’s soft spot: his weakness. Another was rejection. Half a dozen times, Biden refused to acknowledge Trump, instead looking into the television camera. In doing so, Biden appealed to viewers directly while shrinking Trump’s presence down to the size of a toddler’s meltdown. A third was contempt. When candidates don’t respect each other, they pretend they do. Biden isn’t pretending, telling Trump “you’re the worst president America has ever had.” Yet another was more direct (and, I think, something new): “Will you shut up, man?”
In telling an authoritarian to can it, Biden gave a voice, without I presume knowing it, to a thorny question in political thought. At what point do citizens of a free and open society stop tolerating people using the blessings and privilege of liberal democracy to destroy liberal democracy itself? As Karl Popper once said, “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.” In 1945, the British philosopher went on to say that brute force was justified if it came to that. I don’t think we’re there yet—I hope we never arrive—because we haven’t yet tried telling fascists to shut up because we’re tired of their bullshit.
Debating a fascist means giving a fascist tools. That’s one of the paradoxes of liberalism. Biden should bail on the remaining debates but won’t. He already promised to show. If we’re lucky, though, he’ll continue modeling the way to deal with fascism.
John Stoehr is a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, an associate fellow at Yale’s Ezra Stiles College, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly and the Connecticut Mirror, and columnist at the New Haven Register. This article was originally published by The Editorial Board.