On Disappointments With Debates and Politicians

On Disappointments With Debates and Politicians
President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden square off during the first presidential debate at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, on Sept. 29, 2020. (Jim Watson, Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
Theodore Dalrymple

It is a curious fact that hell is much easier to imagine than heaven and presents itself much more vividly to our imagination. I can imagine a hundred hells, but any concept of heaven eludes me. Not coincidentally, perhaps, it is much easier for a writer to invent a memorable bad character than a memorable good one.

Hells can easily be tailored to a person’s personal tastes. For example, one of my personal hells would be a large screen from which I could not avert my eyes for ten billion years that showed only professional basketball accompanied by hysterical commentary. Even five minutes is intolerable to me, though I recognize others feel differently.

I now have yet another idea of hell: a debate, so-called, between President Trump and Mr. Biden that lasted for ever and ever. Of the two in the debate that mercifully lasted only an hour and a half, I should say that Mr. Trump was the worse, which is not to say that Mr. Biden was good.

The best moment (for me) was when Mr. Biden asked Mr. Trump to shut up: that, at least, was sincere and heartfelt, unlike almost everything else that either of them said. My sympathies at that moment were with Mr. Biden—which is not the same as saying that I think he would make the better president.

Mr. Biden was more the dignified and much the better-dressed: his suit was less crumpled than Mr. Trump’s and was much more elegantly cut in the first place, and his tie was simply magnificent. I congratulate whoever chose it for him (no doubt a lot of thought and screen-testing went into the choice).

Whether such things matter in the minds of the electorate and affect their vote, is another question: candidates at interviews for jobs are often told not to dress too well, for fear of intimidating or humiliating those with the power to award the job. As Polonius advised Hamlet with regard to his mode of dress, ‘rich, not gaudy.’

The undignified verbal brawl would have disgraced any school debating society. In a bar, it would have led to fisticuffs. That it should have been one of the bases upon which an electorate was supposed to make its choice was appalling.

But actually it was only the nadir (so far, that is) of the kind of discourse to which political classes of many Western countries are now given. I say it is the nadir so far because I remember Gerard Manley Hopkins’ words, admittedly in another context, that ‘No worst, there is none.’ Further deterioration is always possible.


Though I recognize the regrettable necessity to have them, politicians of the present day appall me. Not long ago, I had the experience of being present during a speech given by former President Sarkozy. He spoke passionately for about thirty minutes, but thirty seconds after he ceased lucubrating, I could not remember a single thing that he had said.

He gestured like a marionette controlled by someone with Huntington’s chorea; his rhetorical sound, as Doctor Johnson would have called it, was as meaningful as the sound of a dried pea rattling around in a tin box. He gave a new meaning to the emptiness of a vacuum.

I was also asked to review the memoirs of the former British Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron. Naturally I did so only for money, no other motive could possibly have led me to finish the 700 pages of the dullest book ever written.

Not a single arresting thought, no humor or irony, no ideas except for the most received ones of the day: I ended the book pitying its author for being so utterly without interest. It must be terrible to be so lacking in spark that you make the average pub bore seem like Oscar Wilde by comparison.

While on the subject of former British Prime Ministers, let me mention Anthony (call me Tony) Blair. He had a most unfortunate combination of qualities, namely those of being simultaneously important and uninteresting.

How dreadful to have someone so patently shallow present so often in one’s mind! He was the very archetype, the Platonic form, of that very modern type, the limitlessly ambitious mediocrity, made flesh.

There is nothing wrong with mediocrity—we need it, and ought all to be understanding of it, for we are all mediocre in many respects—but when it is allied to ambition it is disastrous.

Naturally, as a former psychiatrist, I tried to diagnose Mr. Blair, for clearly there was something wrong with him. However, none of the then current psychopathological concepts quite fitted him, until one day it came to me in a flash, I won’t say of inspiration but of illumination: poor Mr. Blair was suffering from delusions of honesty.

A delusion is defined as a fixed false belief that is impervious to evidence or argument and that is out of keeping with a person’s culture. Despite the manifest evidence of Mr. Blair’s dishonesty and ruthless opportunism, he persists in believing that he is an honest man much needed by the world, and will go on believing it till the day he dies.

Of course, he is not alone: one might almost say that delusions of honesty are, or have become, not merely an occupational hazard but an occupational necessity for politicians. They can’t get anywhere without them; they have to preserve their belief in their own Original Virtue.

However, disdain of all politicians as a class, given their inevitable existence even in Switzerland, where politicians are less important than anywhere else in the developed world, is dangerous, for it easily leads to the desire or longing for the man of providence who we hope will lead us out of the wilderness—but straight into disaster.

George Bernard Shaw once said that he who can does, he who cannot teaches: to which we might add that he who can does, he who cannot goes into politics. For the moment, we shall have to learn to live with the seeming collection of harridans and psychopaths who lead us, as—apparently, and so we are told—we must learn to live with Covid-19.

Theodore Dalrymple is a retired doctor. He is contributing editor of the City Journal of New York and the author of thirty books, including “Life at the Bottom.” His latest book is “Embargo and Other Stories.”
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Theodore Dalrymple is a retired doctor. He is contributing editor of the City Journal of New York and the author of 30 books, including “Life at the Bottom.” His latest book is “Embargo and Other Stories.”