Remember, for a moment, everything that’s happened in between the beginning of the first presidential debate and the end of the meeting of the vice-presidential contenders. President Trump’s performance in his first clash with Joe Biden was unprecedented in its rancor and rudeness, yet somehow that wasn’t the wildest thing he did all week. The president and the first lady were diagnosed with covid-19, along with an expanding roster of White House aides and Republican politicians. Trump had to be hospitalized, while his administration put on a frantic theater production to attest to his fitness and to obscure the details of his diagnosis and condition. After an epic Twitter rampage, the president called his diagnosis “a blessing from God” and claimed a highly experimental treatment for covid-19 is a cure.
Are you exhausted yet? Anyone who’s been paying even a moderate amount of attention to the news since Trump stepped on that escalator to begin his presidential campaign and brought America down with him is exhausted.
By comparison, the vice-presidential debate was the political equivalent of a dose of Ambien. Sure, the candidates interrupted each other and talked over moderator Susan Page. Yes, there was passive-aggressive head-shaking and the candidates taking swipes at their opponents past votes and positions. But even the aspects of politics that generally feel off-putting had an oddly soothing quality. As Commentary editor Noah Rothman put it, “The complete sentences. The false sincerity. The naked mendacity delivered in affecting and compelling tones. It’s like we fell into a portal to The Beforetime.”
That is, essentially, the core message of Biden’s campaign. Vote for Biden, and politics will once again be wonky and corny and a little bit boring. Vote for Biden, and evict the president who’s been living rent-free in so many of our heads. That appears to be a pitch that resonates with voters, both during Biden’s slow and steady journey through the Democratic primary, and during a truly insane general election.
But even if we think we want to Make American Politics Dull again, how will we adjust if we succeed? On Wednesday night, the comedian Patton Oswalt noted with despair that some viewers were complaining about the lack of pyrotechnics on the vice-presidential debate stage.
“This is SUPPOSED TO BE BORING,” he spluttered. “POLITICS SHOULD BE BORING, COMPETENT PEOPLE TAKING CARE OF [S---] SO YOU CAN LIVE YOUR LIFE. IT SHOULDN’T GOBBLE UP ALL THE OXYGEN IN EXISTENCE.”
It’s worth acknowledging that even if Trump gets the electoral thumping he so richly deserves in November, the drama may not completely vanish from our politics. He and his son Don Jr. will continue to command the loyalty of some of the Republican base. A generation of Republicans, like the attention-seeking Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), will compete for the Trumps’ approval and to be their successors. Like the coronavirus, the strain of crazy that’s injected itself into the bloodstream of American politics won’t be easily eradicated.
But even so, it’s worth considering what we’d do with ourselves, if we manage to vote in a calmer interregnum in American politics. Will we find new ways to feed our doom-scrolling addictions, or will we find ourselves drifting away from the Internet if it no longer provides dependable hits of rage and euphoria? Will the Resistance wither if Biden is elected, or will the people activated by the Trump era and the mutual aid movements inspired by the pandemic find their way into the less-glamorous day-to-day work of policymaking and local organizing?
Those answers matter, and not just for what they say about our peace of mind. Getting back to boring will be a start. But we shouldn’t take dullness as an invitation to tune out or disengage. Boring is where some of the most important work in politics happens. And we’ll have an enormous amount to do to restore the other norms this president has shattered once the Trump Show is finally canceled.