Translating the Trump-Biden travesty into Hebrew

Israelis were both bemused and comforted by the display of raised voices and ill manners at Tuesday night's debate.

US President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in their first 2020 presidential campaign debate held on the campus of the Cleveland Clinic at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, US, September 29, 2020. (photo credit: BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)
US President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in their first 2020 presidential campaign debate held on the campus of the Cleveland Clinic at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, US, September 29, 2020.
(photo credit: BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)
Israelis geared up for the US presidential debate on Tuesday night almost much as Americans, but the seven-hour time difference forced those of the former to stay up – or wake up – at 4 a.m. to watch it live. Others waited until later in the morning to view the full 90-minute broadcast on YouTube or enjoy snippets of the spectacle on social media.
“And what a spectacle it was; on this there seems to be universal consensus. Pundits across the political spectrum, while in dispute about who the “winner” was, agree that the behavior exhibited at the event – cohosted by Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic both in Ohio – was unbecoming. And that’s putting it mildly.
It was immediately obvious during the debate which sound bites would be highlighted in newspapers and on Twitter. In this respect, the rhetorical battle between the Republican incumbent and Democratic contender Joe Biden was like a lush tree with an abundance of low-hanging fruit.
Indeed, the proverbial clicking of keyboards could be heard around the globe when Biden said to Trump, “shut up, man,” and after Trump responded to moderator Chris Wallace’s question about whether he would condemn white supremacy with the curious retort: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” That Wallace, a seasoned Fox News anchor and show host, ended up sounding like a cranky teacher in a rowdy classroom contributed to the cringe factor. His irritation – particularly with Trump – was as painful to witness as the Cheshire Cat-like grin that Biden flashed whenever challenged.
ISRAELIS WERE both bemused and comforted by the display of raised voices and ill manners. There hasn’t been such a debate in the Jewish state for more than two decades; the last one took place in 1999. But the tendency for parliamentarians and panelists alike to talk or shout over one another is still alive and well.
On Tuesday evening, in fact – a mere few hours before the Trump-Biden farce began – there was a screaming fight at the Knesset between Coalition Chairman Miki Zohar from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Yesh Atid MK Gadeer Mreeh. After Mreeh concluded her address about the need for the country to set an example for her son and the rest of Israel’s children by ridding them of their “corrupt” leader, Zohar – who was serving temporarily as acting Knesset speaker – berated her for what he called “one of the most repulsive and disgusting speeches” he’d ever heard.
She reacted by yelling at him for “disgracing” his position on the rostrum. They were both right. Her words and his statement were reprehensible, illustrating the total lack of respect that Israeli lawmakers have for one another.
It’s a trait that the public claims “trickled down” to society at large. This is not an accurate depiction, however. On the contrary, it’s the other way around. Rudeness is a cultural norm that Knesset members happen to follow. It is worth remembering that they, too, were mostly born and raised in Israel.
Critics of this phenomenon used to look longingly at American political discourse. But not anymore, certainly not after Tuesday night’s fiasco. Yes, the debate provided Israelis with a sense that we’re not so bad, after all. Hilariously, in the midst of a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown – with all the accompanying malaise and rage – the sight of Trump and Biden duking it out with little decorum was like a pat on the back of encouragement, laced with humor.
THOUGH THE bulk of reportage and analysis on every main Israeli TV station has focused on the novel coronavirus crisis, Channel 12 decided to broadcast and conduct running commentary on the debate during the wee hours. American dual citizens living in the Jewish state tuned in to CNN directly. Hebrew-speakers were able to view and hear anchor Yonit Levi guide them through what a variety of observers have called a “sh*tshow.” The multi-lingual Levi is famous, among other things, for her interviews with prominent politicians at home and abroad, including former US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. When the latter won the election in November 2008, she was barely able to contain her excitement. Like most of her counterparts in the media in and outside of Israel, she had no problem throwing her very flimsy mantle of objectivity to the wind and practically cheering when announcing his victory.
Her distaste for Trump has been equally conspicuous. This not only puts her in good company with her peers in studios around the world; it also makes her attitudes – like her facial expressions and body language – predictable.
When her special broadcast was over early Wednesday morning, Levi thus, as usual, let her feelings be known.
“This presidential debate was the least presidential ever,” she tweeted. “It [would be] hard to stoop lower. And there are still two more like it to go before the finish line. My condolences to America.”
Such faux pity for the US was a common theme among Israelis on the left well before Trump and Biden took to their social-distanced podia. These are the people who loathe Trump with the same passion that they hate Netanyahu, and for some of the same reasons.
This often comes as a surprise to anti-Trump Americans who admire Netanyahu for his statesmanship and intelligence. What they don’t grasp is that pro-Trump Israelis – who are numerous and fervent – consider the US president to be a godsend, regardless of his braggadocio and often gratuitous bullying.
In their (and my) eyes, he is not only the greatest champion of Israel ever to have graced the White House, but someone who executes both foreign and domestic policy at lightning speed. In addition, he is a rare leader for having kept all of the campaign promises he made when he ran for office.
How he has handled the pandemic doesn’t enter the discussion at all. We have our own coronavirus issues to ponder and bemoan.
THE DEBATE, then, was irrelevant. As much as everyone would have preferred a polite performance, few voters will have been swayed by the confrontation, other than those who opt out of the process altogether. The remainder will be casting a ballot for – or against – the ideology of the party behind each candidate.
Ironically, the Americans who have disdain for both candidates – and Israelis like Levi who are eulogizing the US – don’t realize that even in Israel, complaints from all corners about there being “nobody to vote for” are rampant, even with more than a dozen parties and candidates in the race. So, too, is whining about the poor conduct of politicians.
Furthermore, unlike Americans, who learn the result of the election within about 24 hours, Israelis have to wait for weeks – or months, as was the case during the last three rounds – for a government to be formed. For that alone, a modicum of envy is warranted, no matter who wins on November 3.
As for Tuesday night’s debacle, well, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) declared that “additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues.”
In a statement issued on Wednesday, the CPD said that it would be “carefully considering the changes that it will adopt and will announce those measures shortly.”
IT IS highly unlikely that altering the rules will make a difference to viewers or voters during the next Trump-Biden face-offs, one on October 15, in Miami, Florida, and the other on October 22, in Nashville, Tennessee.
Decorum is not Trump’s strong point. Trying to keep the radical Democrats happy while playing the sane moderate for the wider public is Biden’s glaring weakness. These are givens that no shift in debate structure can revise, and everybody knows it.
Another truism is that Tuesday night’s drama probably will cause an even larger audience to tune in – if only out of morbid fascination – to the follow-up bouts. And Channel 12 is sure to have Levi at the ready to promote and lament them.