First Debate: The Howl of the Hollow Man

In the company of millions, I am struggling to process the first candidate debate. I could watch no more than a few minutes of what both my spouse and CNN’s Dana Bash described as a “shitshow” (testimony to my spouse’s obvious political insight and journalistic acumen—no joke!). I was quite able to keep up with the salient points by periodically checking the hailstorm in Twitterverse while I watched Star Trek reruns. I found my initial decision justified at every point. I’m grateful many wise observers had the stamina and fortitude to continue to watch. I couldn’t.

I wondered why (as I often do). I wondered why I couldn’t watch the unfolding train wreck. Along with many others, I found myself in Joe Biden’s place – the subject of an ongoing torrent of irrational, violent, and racist lies and abuse.

Joe Biden has not been able to protect the women and children in his life from disaster, disease, and death. A traffic accident, war, addiction, cancer – these are only the most public realities that have stripped Biden of any delusions of white, male, omnipotence.

I am projecting my own experiences on to the former Vice President, but I see something in his eyes and in the pained smile he shares when under such personal attack. Joe Biden knows the pain, the rage, and the shame of being a white male and failing to keep his loved ones from dying.

After my first wife died rather suddenly – now almost ten years ago – I had no framework for naming and dealing with what and how I felt. I rotated from numbness to suicidal depression to mania and back again. Then I encountered the work of Brene Brown in her first TED talk and in The Gifts of Imperfection.

Brown shared a story about her lack of attention to “male shame.” Her early research focused on women and shame. She shared the story of a husband and father who pressed her on the topic of male shame. Her response was basically, “I don’t do that.” The man replied, “Isn’t that convenient.” He talked about the expectations of the women in his life and concluded, “They would rather I die on that white horse than fall off of it.”

I’m pretty sure he wasn’t being fair to those women, but I understood what he was saying. I had inherited and built a world where male failure was the worst and only sin. I had failed to keep Anne alive. I had failed to care for my grieving sons. And I was drowning in the shame that blossomed from those failures.

I have learned to be a far better swimmer over the years, but the tide continues to ebb and flow. To give credit where credit is due, Brene Brown gave me more than that story. She also opened a door to a different way of living – a life where vulnerability is a gift rather than a punishment, where failure is the doorway to greater depths of life and meaning and joy.

Joe Biden knows the pain of loss and the joy of life in the midst of the losing. I can see it in his eyes, in his smile, and in his shoulders. He bears the shame of white male failure, and he has become more real as he comes to terms with it.

In Trump’s eyes, because Biden has lost, Biden is by definition a loser. Joe Biden has not bullied and bought, denied and deceived his way back to omnipotence. Worse yet, Biden has publicly acknowledged and mourned his losses rather than callously ignoring them (what have we heard from Trump about the death of his brother?).

Biden has put down his armor and embraced his vulnerability. Therefore, in Trump’s world he is a loser. Biden has not retreated into narcissistic self-medication. Instead, he has devoted himself to beliefs and causes larger than self-interest. Therefore, in Trump’s world, he is a sucker. He has remained devoted to one wife (at a time, at least) and has paid his taxes. Therefore, in Trump’s world, he is both simple and stupid.

While Biden has laid down the armor of white, male, omnipotence, Trump has nothing left but that armor. So, Trump is a hollow man, a shell of vitriol and violence, rumination and rage, fakery and fear. He howls without ceasing to drown out the drumbeat of mortality (and spends a lot on hair, it seems).

Joe Biden has also willingly worked for and submitted to the authority of a black man. He has chosen to subvert what Trump sees as the natural hierarchy of being. This is another level of Trump’s contempt for Biden. And it was also on full display last night.

Joe Biden is no paragon of anti-racist, anti-misogynist, anti-colonial virtues. Nor am I, but I think we’re both trying. Biden does, however, refuse to inhabit the opaque costume that American, white, male, omnipotence requires. Trump is nothing but that costume, so proximity to a real alternative (such as Biden) poses an existential threat to him.

It’s not that the emperor has no clothes. It’s that the emperor is nothing but his clothes.

Biden is a loser. He has lost and makes no secret of his grief, or of the fact that his losses have made him a better and stronger person. Joe Biden is open to the possibility that he might become real before he dies. That’s my personal goal as well (but it is surely a work in progress).

Of course, becoming real is the definition of the original sin for Trump. For Trump, reality requires loss and is therefore shameful and disgusting. He would rather kill than lose. And perhaps most troubling is the fact that Trump represents millions who would rather kill than lose.

I will soon be voting for a genuine, flawed, hopeful human and not for an empty set of costume armor.

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