The Trump-Sanders debate farce: Trump did Bernie a big favor by chickening out

What a horrendous idea: A faceoff between Trump and Sanders would've been nothing more than a cheap stunt

Published June 1, 2016 4:26PM (EDT)

Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump   (AP/Jae C. Hong/Charlie Neibergall/Photo montage by Salon)
Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump (AP/Jae C. Hong/Charlie Neibergall/Photo montage by Salon)

The 2016 presidential election cycle has produced a long list of awful things. There's, of course, the ascendancy of tabloid monster Donald Trump, and, along with him, too many news cycles revolving around the candidate's allegedly small penis. We've watched as Trump bragged about having "the best words," as if the election is an eighth-grade spelling bee and not a national event to determine the leader of the free world. We've also seen the rise of fake news sites, deliberately spreading misinformation about both the GOP and Democratic candidates. We've observed a famed neurosurgeon turned somnambulant GOP frontrunner, Dr. Ben Carson, admit that he once stabbed a guy then, years later, casually observed a gunman robbing, in Carson's words, a "Popeye's organization."

At one point, it seemed as if the Republican Party would host a fractured convention, with potentially three or more candidates relentlessly sucker-punching each other in contention for the most delegates. Then, as the possibility of a brokered GOP convention faded, a similar possibility unnecessarily emerged from the Democratic side. The 2016 campaign has been, in a word, screwy or, depending who you ask, intensely and frighteningly aggravating. And, bonus, there's still another five months to go.

Oh, and did I imagine it or did Ted Cruz totally butcher an impression of a scene from the beloved film "The Princess Bride?" Yeah, that happened, too.

The latest episode of head-scratching quackery to arise from the slagheap of bad ideas was the ludicrous notion of a debate between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. In a nutshell, the story goes a little bit like this. The Young Turks, a liberal podcast, offered to host a debate between Bernie and inevitable nominee Hillary Clinton. Hillary, correctly incapable of seeing an upside, backed out of the debate.

That's when Trump was offered the opportunity to take Hillary's spot -- turning what would've been a legitimate issue-oriented Democratic debate into yet another cheap political stunt. A pro wrestling match. A Marvel team-up movie pitting two shovel-fighters who'd otherwise never run against each other in real life. It's somewhat obvious that Trump, too, saw it this way and backed out after initially accepting the challenge on Jimmy Kimmel's show. By the next day, Trump flip-flopped, telling reporters he'd do it for $10-15 million given to charity.

Just before the long weekend, Trump finally backed out, and, frankly, he did Bernie Sanders and the discourse itself a huge favor by putting an end to this horrible idea, which would’ve done nothing other than to further beclown the process while diminishing Bernie himself.

As we've seen on too many occasions to enumerate, the presidential contest this year has terrifyingly lurched toward the prophecies of Mike Judge's "Idiocracy." A stunt debate between Trump and Bernie would have absolutely devolved into nothing more than a higher-profile version of those pointless stunt debates between, say, Bill Nye and that Creation Museum crackpot; or, for that matter, between Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly. Nothing of substance would’ve been achieved; neither candidate would’ve conceded a point to the other; there wouldn’t have been a clear-cut winner; no minds would’ve been changed; and it would’ve established a precedent in which candidates are cajoled with cash in order to appear. It's not unlike Lorne Michaels in the early days of SNL offering to pay the Beatles to reunite. It'd be a skit. A parody of a real debate.

This circus-like tone is perfect for a goofus like Trump, but not for a serious leader like Bernie.

Sure, the calculus in support of Bernie would’ve been to illustrate to California voters and especially superdelegates that Bernie Sanders is a stronger opponent than Hillary against Trump. Hence The Young Turks’ stipulation that the debate occur before the June 7primary. But engaging in a televised shovel-fight with a cartoon villain like Trump —and held outside the traditional post-Labor Day general election debate schedule -- only diminishes the seriousness of Bernie’s revolution, rather than enhancing it.

So, in a way, Trump’s refusal to participate saved Bernie from himself.

If I wasn't too distracted by the real stakes of the election (the Supreme Court, reproductive rights, voting rights, the climate crisis, to name a few), I'd be truly embarrassed for everyone who attached themselves to the idea. It’s pathetic, really, to observe what began as a campaign about progressive ideas descend into flailing madness like this.

Bernie's willingness to tether his electoral hopes to Trump's bigoted, misogynistic gravy train might’ve been wholly indicative of why Bernie's campaign failed in the first place. Specifically, he committed a series of fatal strategic errors mostly attributable to incompetent staff work and an unforgivable lack of preparation against the Clinton Machine.

Among the bullet points in the campaign's post-mortem, we can't help but to note that Bernie & Company mistakenly went negative against Hillary, unnecessarily careening onto and embracing the low-road. Bernie, meanwhile, deeply excoriated the Democratic Party establishment and the superdelegate system, only to circle back, groveling now for establishment support after it's too late. The Bernie get-out-the-vote effort failed to turn impressively massive rally crowds into actual votes, time and time again. Bernie himself stoked discontent and conspiracy-mongering within the party by misleading his supporters about delegate math while also failing to properly educate his ground-game activists about voter-registration and primary rules state-to-state. Perhaps his deadliest error occurred when he pledged to run his campaign solely on individual donations famously averaging $27 when, in a general election matchup, he would've suddenly confronted a stratospheric pile of GOP cash that would've invariably crushed his chances unless he backpedaled. The list goes on and on. And now he's willing to participate in a stunt -- a debate between the GOP winner and the Democratic loser. A political exhibition bout.

These are all factors to take into consideration, and a farcical stunt-debate between Bernie and Trump wouldn’t have ameliorated Bernie's self-inflicted damage, nor would it have sufficed as a last-minute Hail Mary. At the end of the day, it only would’ve managed to illustrate how a failed Democratic candidate was just as willing as Trump to debase himself within the idiocratic narrative.

By Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.


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