Opinion: With a virtual debate America would win and Trump would lose


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Trump, apparently — who, to be fair, is often not particularly right-minded.

The President went on Fox News Thursday morning and, in a rambling and rage-filled interview, told anchor Maria Bartiromo that he wasn’t going to “waste” his time on a virtual debate, even though public health protocols — not to mention basic common sense — dictate that the President should be quarantined until he is no longer infectious. “That’s not what debating is all about,” he said. “You sit behind a computer and do a debate — it’s ridiculous.”
Following the President’s comments, his campaign manager Bill Stepien issued a statement saying Trump would participate in the second debate if it’s moved back by a week. The Biden campaign has rejected the proposal and has said the Democratic presidential nominee will hold a town hall to take questions from voters on October 15.
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An exchange of arguments and ideas is in fact what debating is all about — something Trump stomped all over in the last presidential debate, when he refused to abide by the agreed-upon rules and instead tried to shout and bully his way through the event. He relied on the same tactics in his call-in to Fox, which was an ugly and incoherent spectacle, even for this president.
Trump called the Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris a “monster” and a “communist” who wants to “open up the borders to allow killers and murderers and rapists to pour into our country.” He also blamed Gold Star families for giving him the virus. And he made a series of bizarre, demonstrably false, and stunningly narcissistic claims. “I’m back because I am a perfect physical specimen and I’m extremely young,” said the senior citizen president, who is 74, clinically obese, living with heart issues, and currently infected with Covid-19.

The President calls into Fox News because, unlike more legitimate and nonpartisan news outlets, they will let him rant and lie. A real exchange of ideas, and being checked on his falsehoods, is ultimately what Trump is afraid of. Without any real plans for combating the coronavirus, keeping Americans insured and able to access healthcare, or righting the economy — without the ability to coherently articulate any policy proposals at all — a virtual debate eliminates Trump’s advantages and exposes his considerable weaknesses. It also keeps the audience, the moderator, and the candidates safe.

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Trump has always been a showman without substance, someone who thrives on the emotional energy of a room, whether that’s supporters cheering him while booing refugees or his opponents radiating frustration and disdain in response to his attacks. He leads a cult of personality that has taken over the whole of the Republican Party. The GOP did not release a new platform for 2020, the first time in the party’s more than 160-year history. Instead, a one-page resolution simply affirms fealty to the leader. It would be sad if it weren’t so scary.

A virtual debate would make it much more difficult for Trump to pull his usual attention-grabbing stunts and to evade having to actually speak to policy questions. Presumably, someone in the control room would have the ability to mute the candidates’ microphones. Split-screen framing would likely require both candidates to sit down, which would impede whole-body gesticulating and lurching. The President’s attempts at intimidation would pack far less punch, and watching him try to bully an opponent through a screen would make it far easier to see his juvenile antics for what they are.

While a virtual debate would be less optimal for Trump, it would be of far greater benefit to viewers. We would have an opportunity to actually hear each candidate articulate their vision for our country without being interrupted or bulldozed. It could be a real debate, not a contest of who can yell the loudest and talk over the other most effectively. If that puts Trump at a disadvantage because he is unable to debate ideas, well, the American people deserve to know that. And if the President truly does refuse to participate in the debate, then let Joe Biden show up alone and answer audience questions.

An in-person debate is a public health risk, full stop. At the first presidential debate, the President’s family flouted public health rules by removing their masks as soon as they entered the room. Just days later, the President and the first lady tested positive for Covid-19.

The next debate is supposed to be a Town Hall, where voters ask questions. Are we really asking American citizens to show up, in person, to an event in an enclosed space with a man who has already demonstrated he does not do nearly enough to protect himself and his staff from infection?

All over the country, Americans have made big sacrifices to adjust to our new normal. We have held weddings, baby showers and funerals online. We have sent our children to remote school. We have attended work meetings, job interviews and exercise classes via Zoom. No, it’s not ideal. But a great many of us have radically adjusted our personal and professional lives to keep ourselves, our families and our communities safe from a highly contagious disease.

The men who want to sit in the Oval Office can do the same.

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