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Was the Final Presidential Debate Incomprehensible to Normies?

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After that disastrous first presidential debate in September, Donald Trump and Joe Biden managed to pull it together for round two. A lot of the words out of President Trump’s mouth last night were still incomprehensible or untrue, but he generally managed to wait his turn to say them and do so in his soft voice. Biden also kept his cool, as Trump repeatedly accused the Democratic presidential nominee and his son Hunter of being involved in shady foreign business dealings.

Trump wound snippets of this theory—which originates with Rudy Giuliani and was published by the New York Post—throughout what was otherwise a fairly subdued and substantive second debate.

If you closely follow election news and online media/tech controversies, much of what Trump said on stage last night may have been familiar, or at least not inscrutable. But less extremely plugged-in voters can’t have known what to make of Trump’s scattered insinuations and accusations about the Biden family. Trump careened wildly between random pieces of his Biden conspiracy theory, wielding references to laptops, nicknames, and Anthony Bobulinski like weapons without ever explaining fundamentally what he was talking about.

(If you’re curious about Bobulinski, who was Trump’s guest at the debate last night, check out this Wall Street Journal article, which found “no role for Joe Biden” in a Chinese oil venture that Bobulinski was trying to set up with Hunter Biden and several other partners in 2017.)

Trump—accustomed to slagging Biden in front of his online fan club, at adoring campaign rallies, and to Fox News sycophants—treated the general audience for last night’s debate as if they, too, obviously kept up with the same preoccupations as right-wing Twitter. It was a symptom of a malady Jane Coaston diagnosed in detail yesterday: “Trump’s presidential campaign is too online“:

To be Extremely Online is not simply to be literally connected to the internet (as you likely are at this very moment), but to be deeply enmeshed in a world of internet culture, reshaped by internet culture, and, most importantly, to believe that the world of internet culture matters deeply offline.

Being Extremely Online is both a reformation of the delivery of ideas—shared through words and videos and memes and GIFs and copypasta—and the ideas themselves, a world in which Twitter effectiveness counts as political effectiveness despite Twitter’s comparatively small audience.

The importance of those ideas is then judged not by their real-world impact but on their corresponding popularity or infamy in the world of Online. A trending topic on Twitter becomes a critical locus of entirely online discussion, a Facebook post becomes an infamous online reference for months to come, an entire infrastructure can arise to foment the celebrity of a person you would have never heard of had you not baked in the furnace of being Extremely Online.

It’s also clearly a reaction to Democrats focusing for years on alleged Trump ties to Russia and Ukraine, as well as what seems like an attempt to make this Biden Crime Family business play the role that Hillary Clinton’s private email server did in 2016.

Trump’s insinuations last night may have been convoluted and without merit, but they were able to draw Biden into back-and-forth accusations about who was the real foreign stooge—exchanges that gave Trump another chance to claim that Democrats are still obsessed with Russia.

The question is: Does anyone outside the ranks of either party’s most rabid bases really care? “Foreign meddling” news fatigue set in long ago.

It’s hard to believe either candidate benefited from these exchanges. Americans say they hate mudslinging, especially when it’s removed from everyday issues. If you don’t know anything more than what you’re seeing on stage last night, you probably thought this was, at best, politics as usual—at worse, a sign that the whole system is corrupt and neither candidate is worth backing.

The most contentious moments of last night’s debate came over immigration, with Trump knocking Biden for horrible policies that the Obama/Biden administration started—and that Trump continued and expanded.

Asked about the 545 migrant children who were separated from their parents on Trump’s orders and whose parents now can’t be found, Trump said they were being well taken care of.

More Reason coverage of the second presidential debate: 


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About The Author

Elizabeth Nolan Brown

Founded in 1968, Reason is the magazine of free minds and free markets. We produce hard-hitting independent journalism on civil liberties, politics, technology, culture, policy, and commerce. Reason exists outside of the left/right echo chamber. Our goal is to deliver fresh, unbiased information and insights to our readers, viewers, and listeners every day. Visit https://reason.com

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