Trump Surprised Me

Last night, Joe Biden and Donald Trump had their first, and hopefully only, debate in the contest for the presidency.  Everyone today is aware of what happened last night, but as the future unfolds, September 29th will fade from significance.  I have personally paid close attention to presidential debates for the last 40 years.  40 years ago, the incumbent president came to stay overnight in my hometown, Shaker Heights, and then debated Ronald Reagan the next day in Cleveland.  I was a high school student at the time, and I watched that debate as I would have attended one of my classes.  I sat with a notebook and pencil and wrote down every question, every response, and my impression of the answers.  I had decided to do that because, as a teenager, I began to notice that political candidates had the habit of not answering questions asked, but rather answering with statements about what they wanted to say.  Often the answers had little or nothing to do with the question.  

Watching President Carter and Gov. Reagan, my analysis was lopsided.  Carter annihilated Reagan.  Carter’s answers were substantive, direct, and accurate.  Reagan’s answers had none of that.  I was shocked to discover the next day that the press declared Reagan a winner by knockout.  Carter was judged harshly for his seriousness and Reagan lauded for his casualness.  Huh.  So, that’s how adults were.  Who knew?

In the 40 years since that night, I have come to know a thing or two about political debates, and life as an adult generally.  I have tried to get an understanding of how America values style versus substance, and I have been surprised on several occasions.  I was surprised by the negative reaction to the George Dukakis’s(that’s Michael Dukakis.  Thank you, Alan Milner.) answer regarding rape.  My own upbringing made me slightly biased in favor of quiet, careful, emotionless reactions publicly.  Many others preferred a more emotional response.  I get it, but at that time, I was much different.  Much more buttoned up.  I recall the reaction to George Bush (the elder) looking at his watch.  Left alone, I never would have noticed it or cared.  America pointed out that it made Bush appear bored.  I get it, made a point not to do it, but it did not strike me as especially odd.  I recall Al Gore referring to placing the Social Security fund in a “lock box.”  SNL had good fun with that, and yes, Gore’s manner was somewhat awkward, but that did not strike me as odd, and frankly, by now it has come to seem prescient.  I recall Obama saying to Hillary Clinton, “you’re likable enough, Hillary”. It seemed a minor response to me.  Once the press got ahold of it, you’d think Obama slapped her face and called her a foul name.  Obama was never given much latitude, and even liberals love to chastise him.  (That’s another observation for another time.)

Last night, though, I found myself quite surprised.  Donald Trump shocked me.  You might think this is a criticism of Trump’s conduct.  It isn’t.  Trump’s conduct did not shock me in the slightest.  The thing I can not get my head around was what Trump did not do.  I learned more about Trump in what he did not do than all that I have known about him from the last 5 years.

One thing I learned about adults from my parents is that there are certain lines that can’t be crossed.  I loved my parents dearly, and I never had a moment of doubt that they loved me.  I was among the fortunate in that regard.  An essential element of the easy relationship with my parents was respect.  My Mom, all of 5’1”, projected a certain power.  I was fully invested in the notion of respecting one’s parents…hell, adults generally, and my parents knew that.  This was the contract between adults and children, as I understood it.  As I became an adult, this expanded into positions of authority, and those within the structure.  Rule following, deference had their place.  We all had our roles to play.  

Donald Trump doesn’t respect anyone or anything…right?  That’s where you think this is going?  No.  Not exactly.  While I think he probably doesn’t, that is not what Trump showed me last night.  What I learned from reading Donald Trump last night is that he does not respect himself, or have any expectation of receiving respect.  This jumped out at me in what Trump chose not to do.

Joe Biden handed Trump a huge opening last night and Trump failed to seize on it.  Trump wasn’t just sloppy.  It was clear that he had no concept of the principle.  When Biden called Trump, “clown”, and when he said, “will you shut up”…I can tell you right now, my parents would have handled that differently.  Now, I am not saying that my parents would not accept that treatment from their son.  That goes without saying.  What either of my parents wold have done is said, “look Joe, you don’t speak to the President of the United States that way…”. “You must respect the office, irrespective of what you think of me personally…”.  Something like that.  Frankly, not only do I think Biden would have apologized for his impertinence…I actually think he still may.  I think Biden is of such character that such conduct will bother him…his own conduct.  

What Trump showed me is that he does not understand the concept of dignity.  Yes, he lacks it.  That is plain for all to see.  What he showed last night is that he does not recognize it.  He does not know when he is entitled to it.  He is blind to it.  Trump wasn’t the slightest bit taken aback by the disrespect to the office.  Of all the pitiful aspects to Trump’s conduct, I feel most sorry for him for the fact that he clearly lacks self respect.  I like Joe Biden.  I’m going for him.  You bet your ass I will be voting for him.  But if Joe Biden had said that to any adult that I respect, that adult would have known how to check Joe Biden, and would have done so.  Trump truly surprised me.  He’s less of a man than I thought.

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