The First Presidential Debate and Confronting Mortality

The message was obvious to me as soon as Trump said half a sentence. There’s too much personal introspection there for a public post, but let’s just say that all of the thinking I’ve done regarding my own mortality in the last few years helped me absorb the initial blow in stride. And yes, mortality, not morality.

You may ask how this disaster fire of a debate led to me contemplating my own death (other than from a desire to stop watching by any means).

But Trump made his sentiments clear. Near the end of the debate, Trump provided two separate answers that I see a lot of people treating as separate issues. And independently, each is concerning. But together, the implications are legitimately dangerous.

First, moderator/doormat Chris Wallace asked Trump to “condemn white supremacists and militia groups.” After some attempts to dodge the question and some awkward silence, he gave what apparently he believed was a denunciation: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left.” Within an hour, the Proud Boys had sent a public message indicating that they were standing by and waiting for orders to…presumably engage in additional racial violence.

This has to be read in conjunction with Trump’s final call for his supporters to “watch the polls very carefully”. This is not overtly racist, but it’s a clear dog whistle: people like the Proud Boys will interpret this statement exactly how Trump knows it will be interpreted. They will understand it as a request to show force, perhaps by using firearms, at or near polling places. Indeed, people like the Proud Boys, whether or not they are operating in conjunction with the Proud Boys, will likely interpret that phrase as license to get belligerent, or even violent, when pollworkers tell them (correctly) that they cannot be present inside the polling place to observe unless they have been precleared to do so.

It’s framed perfectly to give Trump plausible deniability of this interpretation of his words. But he knows, and we all know, what he meant. And even if he has no conception or understanding of folks like me, he was speaking to people who believe I exist to stop them from accomplishing their goals. Their goals, in this case, being potentially as egregious as domestic terrorism.

It’s framed perfectly to give Trump plausible deniability of this interpretation of his words. But he knows, and we all know, what he meant. Not only by the direct command to watch the polls, but also the notion that “somebody’s got to do something” about the left. And, indeed, there is pre-Trump precedent for this: this is the first presidential election in almost 40 years where the RNC is not prohibited by court order from taking “ballot security” measures such as sending off-duty cops to stand outside minority-affiliated polling locations with guns. (Why are our euphemisms so…sterile? Just call it voter intimidation.)

Does this make me worried, as somebody who will be a pollworker on November 3? I’d be lying if I said no. But does this change how I feel about doing that work? No. There is an election to be held, and the votes must be counted. Any less would play into Trump’s attempts to undermine confidence in the election. And at this point, that is his exclusive play, it appears. And while the folks on the ballot may not be the ones who can or will save us, it will become a lot harder for us to save ourselves if we cannot even guarantee for ourselves the administration of elections.

It may feel weird to some of you to discuss working the polls in terms of life and death. But elections were already about life or death. The life or death of those who have contracted COVID. The life or death of asylum seekers we’ve turned away over the last four years. The life or death of Black boys and men who are being killed by police who expect to face no consequences.

I did not serve in the military. I have no intention of wielding any instrument of violence against anybody from any country, whether my own or otherwise. But I know what I am willing to do to protect the freedoms this country claims to care so much about. I know that each of those marginalized groups above suffers more if we cannot even force Trump to eat his words about the administration of the 2020 election. And I know that the folks out there wearing “Rittenhouse did nothing wrong” shirts are trying to make people feel not only unwelcome but afraid of even trying to maintain the current society, let alone build a better one.

Is it self-aggrandizing and also alarmist to say that I would put my body and/or my life on the line in a polling place to ensure civil liberties in this broken husk of a society? Yes. Is it likely that my day assigned to an urban, racially diverse, and Dem-leaning polling place will be relatively uneventful? Yes. And I think those things are important for not only me to remember but anybody else who is considering being a pollworker on November 3.

But therein lies the rub: It is imperative that we not encourage a panic, but it is important to talk about the ways in which Trump is trying to undermine this election. That balance is tricky, perhaps impossible. One of my friends has already expressed that they are not going to work the polls as they’d originally planned. I don’t at all question their logic. But hopefully pointing these things out will help render some of Trump’s efforts ineffective. Sometimes you have to do one or two impossible things to pull through.

The Proud Boys, of course, would be right if they think I’m the type of person who wants to stop them. Where we have to catch them off guard is by sustaining our efforts through and past the election.

And if we win, that is when the real work for change can begin.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s