This must be said first: Last night’s debate was an offensive attack on the American people and on all this country aims to represent. Rather than disavow white supremacists when asked directly, the president issued them specific orders: “Stand back and stand by,” he said. It’s no surprise that the Proud Boys are celebrating what they saw as the president’s acknowledgment that he is their leader and incorporated his words into their logo. Later, he encouraged his supporters to swarm the polls on Election Day to “watch carefully”—effectively calling for voter intimidation across the country. By the end of the night, he was shouting that the United States—the country he serves and leads—is all but incapable of holding legitimate elections. This was jaw-dropping, but Trump’s egregious conduct was also familiar in the most literal sense of the term. When Trump gabbled about ballots in various waterways, belittled Joe Biden’s university, and interrupted Biden’s heartfelt recollection of his dead son to sneer that he didn’t know him, what he evoked most clearly was a particular kind of male relation at the dinner table who won’t shut up—the abusive father or problematic uncle whose captive audience has learned to placate and mock and appease while he cruelly lashes out.
The president of the United States proved repeatedly what most have known for some time: He cannot abide being subjected to the same rules (or laws) as anyone else. In vain did moderator Chris Wallace remind Donald Trump that his campaign had agreed to this specific debate format; the impeached president, manifestly unaccustomed to being directly confronted or even challenged, talked and yelled and talked some more, expecting to prevail. It is to both Wallace’s and former Vice President Joe Biden’s credit that they talked over him in turn, refusing—as much as any person could—to let him simply bellow his way into more airtime. To do otherwise was not an option; it would have meant ceding Trump ground he can no longer be permitted to occupy. When a bully yells, you must yell back. But the overall effect was horrific. Chris Wallace got drawn into the abusive uncle dynamic: In his efforts to get the shouting president to wait his turn, he frequently opted for a kind of desperate appeasement, repeatedly assuring him—as if the man were a toddler or a king—that he “would like the next question.” The dynamic was appalling but clear. Most of us have at one point or another shared a table with a man who had to be so “managed.”
The abusive parent lies because he can. He does as he likes, recognizing no authority above his own. He refuses to be held to any standard, swaps principles depending on how he feels but enforces his new convictions stringently on all his underlings. He is never responsible for what he says, but happily punishes and humiliates those around him for the slightest misstep. He can make promises one day and break them the next, all while feeling terrific about himself; his word means nothing, but his credit is endless. He carves out exception after exception.
It is a terrible thing to be in thrall to such a person and to watch the world fail to stop him. Normally, however, this condition occurs in childhood (or in the context of an abusive marriage). That this roughly describes the present circumstances of many American adults is partly why so many people watching the debates felt such dread before it started, and such horror as it unfolded exactly as expected (maybe worse than expected). Nothing is more soul-crushing than watching an abusive father at work, because there appear to be no limits. And Trump is mean—mean in his bones. He tries to charm at his rallies, but his real nature slipped through last night, when he was faced with an opponent he literally got himself impeached trying to avoid. And he couldn’t forgive that, not even for a second. “My son was in Iraq, he spent a year there. He got the Bronze Star, he got the Conspicuous Service Medal,” Biden said of Beau Biden, his son who died of brain cancer in 2015. Biden was bringing up Beau as a counter to Trump’s demeaning comments about veterans. “He was not a loser,” Biden said. “He was a patriot, and the people left behind there were heroes.” Trump interrupted to say, “Are you talking about Hunter?” attempting to resurrect the story that got him impeached. “I’m talking about my son Beau,” Biden said. “I don’t know Beau, I know Hunter,” Trump said, his lip curled with inhuman satisfaction.
Biden was sincere, and his fatherly love for both his sons shone through. In a remarkable moment, Biden—in a perfect antithesis to the abusive father figure—stopped avoiding Trump’s attacks on Hunter and paused to address an aspect of it, defending his child. He acknowledged that his son once had a drug problem, and that he’d overcome it, and he was proud of him. This is a circumstance many Americans know well; the opioid crisis has made this problem familiar to many, many families. Trump used that pain to try to score a cheap point he’d already tried to make a dozen times.
The defining quality of the abusive father is the abuse. Like most such men, Trump finds the very idea of equality humiliating. He can only abide supremacy. And he makes it clear that if he doesn’t get his way, he will hurt you—however he can, using whomever he can. Nazis, Proud Boys—it doesn’t matter. As long as they’re on his side, he’ll use them against you. And if he doesn’t get to win, he’ll burn it all down with him.
Those who have had an abusive relative know that what one longs for—what one wants to have happen more than anything in the world—is for someone in the outside world to acknowledge what’s happening. To see it, and to stop it. Biden’s performance was uneven, but he delivered on that in spades. He narrated what Trump was doing while looking at the camera and talking to the American people. He turned to him and said what so many Americans have desperately wished they could say: “Will you shut up, man?” It was cathartic, even validating.
America is not a family, though, and citizens are not children. When Biden delivered his last answer of the night, on election security, he was very clear about who has to do the rescuing. “He cannot stop you from being able to determine the outcome of this election,” he said, countering Trump’s numerous attempts to do exactly that. “Just make sure you understand, you have it in your control to determine what this country is going to look like the next four years.”