Robert Reich: Why I’m Scared About The Thursday Debate – OpEd


I’m now 78, and I’m scared sh*tless about what might come down Thursday evening, when the oldest candidates ever to compete in a presidential race debate each other. 

I’m less worried that Biden will suffer a mental lapse or physically stumble than I am that Biden will look weak and Trump appear strong. 

One of Trump’s most successful ploys has been to frame the upcoming election as a contest between strength and weakness, and to convince many Americans that stridency and pugnacity are signs of strength while truth and humility signal weakness. 

In 1960, when I watched John F. Kennedy square off against Richard Nixon, character and temperament were the most important variables. 

Most people who listened to the debate on radio called the first debate a draw or thought Nixon had won, but Kennedy won handily among television viewers. It wasn’t because of Nixon’s paler complexion. Kennedy stared directly into the camera when he answered each question. Nixon, on the other hand, looked off to the side to address the various reporters, which came across as shifting his gaze to avoid eye contact with the public — a move that seemed to show evasiveness, the character flaw that had earned Nixon the moniker “Tricky Dick.”

I last watched a tape of the Kennedy-Nixon television debate in 1992, when sitting beside Bill Clinton, who used it to prepare for his debate with George H. W. Bush and Ross Perot. Clinton wanted to emulate Kennedy’s character — his confidence, humor, and optimism. (In the end, Perot’s whiny indignation turned viewers off. George H. W. seemed over the hill. Clinton won the debate by default.)

Which brings me back to character. Over 78 years, I’ve met and observed a small number of people in American public life whom I’d characterize as vile. Senator Joseph McCarthy, Governor George Wallace, and Speaker Newt Gingrich come immediately to mind, along with Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes. What made them vile to me was their cynical opportunism — the eagerness with which they exploited people’s fears to gain power or notoriety, or both. All had the character of barnyard bullies. 

Donald Trump is the vilest by far. His loathsomeness extends to every aspect of his being — his continuous stream of lies, the eagerness with which he seeks to turn Americans against each other, his scapegoating of immigrants, his demeaning of women and the disabled. And his utter disrespect for the office of the presidency, for the laws of the land, for the United States Constitution, for the senators and members of Congress and staff and police whose lives he intentionally endangered on January 6, 2021, and for hundreds of thousands of election workers whose lives he directly or indirectly threatened with his baseless claims of election fraud. 

Character will not be debated Thursday night, but I hope Americans who have not yet made up their minds or who are wavering in their support of Joe Biden will pay attention to it. Character is — must be — on the 2024 ballot. 

I remember debating Arizona’s former Republican Governor Jan Brewer before the 2016 election. I asked her whether she thought Trump had the character and temperament to be president. When Brewer temporized, I asked again. Finally she said yes. Her answer may have been the most dishonest thing anyone said during that election season — other than Trump’s own rapacious lies. 

A few days ago, I was talking with a young conservative who admitted that Trump was an “odious thug,” in his words, but argued that America and the world had become such a mess that we need an odious thug as president. 

“Think of Putin, Xi, Kim, Ali Khamenei, Netanyahu — they’re all odious thugs,” he said. “We need our own odious thug to stand up to them.” 

I said that direct confrontation could lead to more bloodshed, even nuclear war. 

He continued: “We need an odious thug to shake up Washington, stir up all the ossified bureaucracies now destroying America, do all the things no one has had the balls to do.” I winced. He charged: “We need someone to take control!” 

As soon as he uttered those last words, he and I both knew the conversation was over. He had spilled the beans. He was impatient with the messiness and slowness of democracy. He wanted a dictator. 

I’m not sure how many Americans attracted to Trump feel this way. It’s consistent with the strength-versus-weakness framework Trump is deploying. Trump may be loathsome, they tell themselves, but at least he’s strong, and we need strength over weakness.

I was born 78 years ago today. At that time, the world had just experienced what can occur when a loathsome person who exudes “strength” takes over a major nation and threatens the world. A number of distant relatives died fighting Nazis or perished in Nazi concentration camps. I can’t help but wonder if the young conservative I spoke with would feel differently were he 78.

Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and writes at Reich served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fifteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good," which is available in bookstores now. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism," which is streaming now.

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