Ron Fournier, whose son Tyler has autism, is compiling stories and reflections from readers on the spectrum and from their loved ones. Reach out to Ron here with your own experiences. And be on the lookout for his new book, Love That Boy.
The latest contribution to our ongoing reader series comes from the proud grandmother of a kindergartner with autism. She agrees with me that it takes a village to support children and adults on the spectrum:
Awareness and diagnosis are a priority for the family. There are too many children falling through the cracks, so my daughter has volunteered to start a community support group for parents who are concerned about their child’s development. She has found many parents reluctant to accept a label, and she hopes to turn their fears into action.
I told her that my wife and I embraced the label and found solace in knowing the challenges facing our son and what we could do to help him. More important, Tyler proudly calls himself an Aspie. “Like blue eyes, I don’t talk about how I have blue eyes,” he says in a video interview with Autism Speaks (embedded above). “I have autism. That’s it.”
This next reader and Twitter friend writes about the rich inner lives of people with special needs, including autism. (Some names and details have been changed to protect privacy.) It’s painful to read about this particular kind of heartache:
For two years, Frank has wanted to move out of his group home to a new place. Although his current digs are clean and safe, he’s gotten bored. When he saw our children move into college dorms, he wanted to do the same. He thinks of college life as what he’s seen on Beverly Hills 90210.
We finally found him a nice new home close to his current digs. He’s had dinner over there. We’re attending to the formal details. He’s been packing bags in his room.
In the house he is leaving, Frank lives with several other guys. He is closest to Jon. Jon cannot speak. He communicates by scribbling on scraps of paper and excitedly handing them to staff members who then try to decipher what he has written.
Frank is probably his closest friend. He’s called him Jon-Jon for a few years now. Frank has also been swiping Diet Cokes from us for years. I used to get annoyed by this, until I realized that he and Jon were sitting together, sharing the loot.
Jon is heartbroken by Frank’s pending move. He’s weeping, and doing some other manageable problem behaviors. A staff member called our house the other night, hinting around to see if we would reconsider the move. I won’t do that. Frank is an adult man entitled to make his own choices. He wants a change. I’m not going to pressure him to miss a valuable opportunity. But like many life changes, it brings someone else heartache and loss.
These men have much richer inner lives than we’ll ever really understand. They mourn long-ended relationships with relatives, housemates, and friends who’ve died, moved away, or slipped out of their lives. They are expected to bear these losses with a child-like smile, and not to get overly frustrated when we don’t understand what they are trying to tell us.
In this case, though, the message could hardly be simpler: I will miss you. Do you really have to go?
The book tour has prompted some poignant responses, including this one from a reader who contacted me via a Twitter direct message. She had just watched me on TV:
You were talking about the time you were too busy working and that you missed out on family time. My 14-year-old son fell off a cliff at YMCA camp in 1987. It never goes away.
I live a different life now—most days are normal. But, sometimes thoughts pop in and it’s as though not one day has passed. The morning of your interview, I was thinking of the ways I could have been a better mother. I was regretting yelling at him the night before he left for camp because he didn’t do something I told him. We had raised money for him to go to camp, and here I was 28 years later, angry with myself because I had told friends (sort of kiddingly) that I needed a break from him and please donate so I could have a week to myself. I think I used the word, “help me get rid of him.” I cried that morning and basically beat myself up.
Then I heard you saying similarly themed comments about regrets. I know we know things, but sometimes just need to hear someone else say it. I realized that it’s just because my son is gone, and I can’t take a trip or make it better, but I’m no different than you or any other parents.
I had no idea how to respond. With shaking hands, I typed into my IPhone:
Wow. You just gave me a chill. You got me crying. Please don’t beat yourself up. Great moms need a break from their dang kids—and great moms sometimes outlive their kids. He’s still with you. Hang on to that—and not the guilt. Warmest, Ron.
I wish I could have done better. I wish I had the words for her. Because she didn’t say her son was autistic, I wasn’t sure at first whether her note belonged in this thread. But it does. We all struggle with the questions haunting that mom: Am I a good parent?
Another reader, in an email, discusses his guilt and anxiety, describing himself as a father of an autistic five-year-old boy long misdiagnosed by medical professionals:
Learning that Elliot is on the spectrum was a heart-rending relief. All your concerns and suspicions that were waved off by others turning into a terrible validation that you’re not just neurotic or impatient and you really do know your own child well enough to tell that something is wrong. We are fortunate to have an excellent program in our district that he has blossomed in. After six months in his specialized class, he has been spending half days in a traditional preschool setting and half with his therapists. This fall he will be going to kindergarten and has been placed in full day program much like now only with more emphasis on transitioning him. We’re hopeful.
His boy sounds a lot like mine. Tyler, now 18, has a brilliantly unique sense of humor that helps him cope, and even connect.
For a while, as a joke, we’d show him his name and ask what it said. He would happily answer “Elliot!” I’d smile and mischievously say, “Or maaaaybe... E-Lye-Oat”—intentionally mispronouncing it. He’d laugh and say “Elliot!” I’d respond with “Or maaaaybe...” and we’d go in a few circles.
One day I was getting him a yogurt and said “Or maybe Elliot should get broccoli!”
Elliot smiled and said, “Elliot gets yogurt, E-Lye-Oat can get broccoli!” He laughed, grabbed his treat and ran off.
I was stunned that my son had turned the mispronunciation of his name into a joke about shoving broccoli off onto an alter ego I had created. Those are the times that make you happy, proud and hopeful. I know that being smart will offer obvious advantages in life, but I think it’s his personality that will help him get the chance to show what else he has to offer.
Like Tyler’s family, the people who love Elliot the most had a hard time understanding him—or how to help him—until the diagnosis.
The rest of my family has been supportive although my mother frets constantly about Elliot still being in pull-ups. He has trouble understanding his body and when he needs to use the bathroom. We’re working on it and his therapists are working on it. And talking to the assistant principle at his school next year, she seemed optimistic, based on previous students, that Elliot will pick it up.
It’s an obvious source of worry that he will be teased for it, but it’s disheartening to visit the family with a list of accomplishments Elliot had made and have it boil down to “But is he potty trained yet?” as though the time he wrote out the alphabet in shaky letters alone in his room and called me in to see or how we’ve been able to retire all the various sippy cups because he’s increasingly capable and confident with his small cups means little if he’s not in underwear. I’ve explained this to her and she’s properly chastened each time ... until the next time we talk.
The father attached a picture that Elliot drew. The boy likes robots and, one morning, his dad drew one for him. Elliot picked up a marker and copied it—the first actual representative thing the father had seen him draw. The paper is crumpled because Elliot carries it with him, telling anyone who’d listen, “This is a picture about robots. A daddy robot and an Elliot robot.”
Jim Elliott—a long-time reader contributor to Notes and one of the core members of Ta-Nehisi’s old Horde—just wrote a long commissioned piece for The Atlantic criticizing “facilitated communication,” which purports to enable people with severe autism to communicate through a “facilitator.” Here’s Jim:
[Dillan Barmache, a nonverbal teen with autism, is shown in the above video] typing into a device held by a woman, his “communication partner,” who gently pushes the keyboard back against his finger as he types. This pressure, which allegedly helps him to organize his sensory system and motor planning, is a hallmark of Rapid Prompting Method (RPM), what some experts argue is a form of “facilitated communication”—a technique that persists in spite of overwhelming evidence that discredits it. Such partners—alternatively called “facilitators,” among other terms—are not akin to translators, who merely take on valid means of communication and frame it into another, but are the means of communication itself.
A reader, Lisa, responds to Jim’s piece:
I think this is a giant over simplification of RPM. It’s primarily a method of education. It’s what drew me to it for my son, and it’s the only thing I could find that suggested he could have a rich education, and an age appropriate one at that. I think parents find it and keep doing it because it works and because they know that their kids aren’t empty thoughtless shells, that there’s more to them and they want more for them than learning the same preschool level skills over and over again year after year in ABA [applied behavior analysis] and special education.
I think professionals will come around eventually when they start to realize how much motor challenges are a part of non-verbal autism. Until then, parents will have to decide for themselves, trust their gut, and keep moving forward.
Jim replies to Lisa:
In the words of creator Soma Mukhopadhyay, RPM “is academic instruction leading towards communication for persons with autism.” The method, which is highly expensive and largely secretive, relies upon auditory and physical prompts to provoke a response from the autistic student—hallmarks of derivations of facilitated communication. Rather than address the authorship concerns that arise from prompting, Lisa instead relies upon a classic evasion of FC advocates: That denying the validity of communication through RPM renders her child an “empty thoughtless shell.”
ABA—the umbrella term for applied behavior analysis and most often used as a shorthand for the “Lovaas method" or “discrete trial”—spent a great deal of time as the dominant method for teaching discrete tasks to children with autism. The method formed the basis for a variety of derivations, but it remains popular in itself because it is easy and cheap to do. Interventionists do not even require a college degree. (ABA originally called for a large number of instructional hours.)
In my experience, “discrete trial” has diminishing returns. Of the autistic students I’ve worked with, maybe a third of them experience success through the method, and maybe a third of those are able to generalize the skills they do learn to multiple environments. The problem here is that many behaviorists have decided that because some forms of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) share hallmarks of ABA (such as the Picture Exchange Communication System), these behaviorists think they can replace speech-language pathologists and incorporate these methods into their lessons, often without training or consultation with a licensed speech therapist. I can certainly appreciate parents looking for alternatives to this form of ABA; its utility starkly diminishes after about mid-elementary school age.
Which leads to the problem of FC’s co-option of AAC. AAC is, at its heart, a variety of supplemental communication methods that are clinically testable. They are not meant to replace or supplant other forms of communication. They are tools designed to foster independent communication in a manner comprehensible to people in their daily lives.
Jim also went back and forth here with another reader, Arthur, who says he has “extensively read up on prompting—for over 20 years concerning FC and for over 35 years since I did ABA with my own son starting in June 1980 (but stopping in August 1985 after he was severely traumatized by ABA).”
One more reader for now:
I am a Speech Language Pathologist from Australia and I can say with complete conviction that facilitated communication with people with autism is completely and utter nonsense. Not only is it scientifically invalid, when you really think about it, it is completely illogical.
In my experience, people who use facilitated communication can apparently spell near perfectly. However, if that were true, they’d be the best spellers and writers in a whole cohort of people diagnosed with intellectual disability and autism. I know FC proponents like to argue that the person was misdiagnosed in the first place, but when you think about it, that can’t be true, can it? Why would a large percentage of people with autism grow to have diagnosed intellectual disabilities (many are verbal) whilst these non-verbal people don’t?
Secondly, non-verbal people have so many opportunities to show their literacy skills. FC “users” inevitably end up saying they learned to read and write from street signs and ads and not in school. This is not how literacy is learned and is absolutely impossible.
There are many people who say little, but can write completely independently. If they have an intellectual disability, it is rarely conversational. Literacy and communication are not necessarily connected for some people. Just because someone can spell well, doesn't mean they can construct sentences that flow just like a conversation. Yet we never hear of FC people just typing movie quotes or the names of all the DVDs they have at home.
Organisations that continue to advocate for FC should be ashamed. True acceptance and understanding of non-verbal people should come from appreciating the alternative ways that they communicate, not trying to cling to the desperate hope that we are actually all the same.
Are you someone with first-hand experience with facilitated communication? Please drop us a note to share your personal experience, professional expertise, or disagreements with Jim’s piece: email@example.com. Update from a reader:
RPM stands for Rapid Prompting Method. The second word in the method states exactly what RPM is; non-verbal people with autism are prompted by a facilitator. As a teacher of students with autism, I have come across this method and find it to be junk science. If a person cannot touch a letter board independently, then they cannot communicate. Unfortunately, there are parents who are desperate and truly believe that their child can communicate using RPM.
I had the opportunity to observe Soma (the inventor of RPM) work with a former student of mine who at best worked at the level of a two year old. Soma prompted him all the way, but managed to convince his mom to hire a facilitator to work with him. The facilitator charges an obscene amount per hour and somehow still has the mom believing that her son is now communicating by spelling and comprehending reading at a high school level when being read to. The truth is her son cannot even follow a one-step direction.
Soma is a fraud and so are the facilitators, and they need to be stopped from taking these naive parents’ money. They are preying on parents who have the most severely disabled children and giving them false hope.
A new piece by Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn on the use of “applied behavioral analysis” (ABA) is eliciting a lot of strong response from readers. ABA—“the longest-standing and best-established form of therapy for children with autism,” according to DeVita-Raeburn—was developed out of the behaviorist school (think B.F. Skinner and his use of rats and food pellets); it breaks down desirable behaviors into discrete steps, rewarding a child for completing each step along the way and discouraging errant behaviors.
But the popular method is controversial among a subset of autistic adults, advocates, and parents of autistic children:
They contend that ABA is based on a cruel premise—of trying to make people with autism ‘normal,’ a goal articulated in the 1960s by psychologist Ole Ivar Lovaas, who developed ABA for autism. What they advocate for, instead, is acceptance of neurodiversity—the idea that people with autism or, say, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or Tourette syndrome, should be respected as naturally different rather than abnormal and needing to be fixed. ...
[Lovaas’] approach discouraged—often harshly—stimming, a set of repetitive behaviors such as hand-flapping that children with autism use to dispel energy and anxiety. The therapists following Lovaas’ program slapped, shouted at, or even gave an electrical shock to a child to dissuade one of these behaviors. The children had to repeat the drills day after day, hour after hour.
This illustrative video of Lovaas methods from 1981 does not contain slapping or electrical shock, but it does display a range of other techniques such as stern repetitive directives, food reinforcement, and the stopping of stimming:
In the comments section of DeVita-Raeburn’s piece, Suzanne Letso, the co-founder and CEO of Connecticut Center for Child Development, defends ABA against criticism, especially regarding its roots: “ABA programs have evolved and improved since the early work of Lovaas and others.” She continues:
Unfortunately, this article is very misleading about what ABA is and is not. ABA programs utilize positive reinforcement, not aversive practices, to change behavior. ABA programs customize intervention for each learner and make learning fun, not punishing.
ABA is not synonymous with DTI [Discrete Trial Training—a method of teaching in simplified and structured steps]. ABA is not just a treatment for autism. ABA is not a package of static programs. People interested in learning more about what ABA is and how it can be utilized … please go to apbahome.net or bacb.com or casproviders.org or balcllc.org
Another reader also attests to the evolution of ABA since the Lovaas days:
I’ve worked with hundreds of kids and adults on and off the spectrum for over 15 years using the principles of ABA; “unrelenting drills” were never used. I’ve taught kids skills such as sledding with their peers in their neighborhoods, eating at a restaurant for a grandma’s birthday, and clapping their hands to get attention instead of punching somebody or themselves. This article also shines little light on the thousands of studies that support ABA interventions in schools, homes, work places, and communities.
A parent of an autistic child is on the same page:
We have my 6-year-old daughter in ABA therapy 20-30 hours a week. She’s improved immensely, and they don’t use any aversives.
They do, however, keep insisting that she follow directions, but it’s more in the sense of repeating the same command over and over again in a consistent tone until it sinks in that she’s not going to get her way by throwing a fit. (When we first started, she was 3 and would sometimes scream, hit, or run away if the therapist wanted her to stay in her room, pick up her toys, of follow some other direction.)
For a while, food was used as a positive reward, but she was never rewarded like this when she was hungry. (Now, the reward is watching Frozen videos or doing a preferred craft for 10 minutes.) Her speech has improved immensely and she’s able to successfully engage with her peers and school and out around town (the park)—something I never thought would happen.
Maybe a good way to think about this would be to compare old-style ABA therapy to standard parenting practices from the same time period. Most of the practices from that era on both fronts would be considered abusive now. Hitting your kids with a belt, sending them to bed without dinner, etc. were all common at that time.
We try to shape our children, neurotypical or not, to be aware of social norms/behaviors. That doesn't mean we don’t value who they truly are. Well-applied ABA therapy just tailors that approach to an autistic child’s needs.
One more reader, Hannah, makes a distinction about how ABA can and should be used:
Most of the criticism here seems to be directed at ABA therapy targeted at social skills. I can understand this, though I’m not sure that the people regretting their treatment would actually have been better off without that treatment. Still, impossible to say.
But ABA is also teaching children to eat and communicate and use the bathroom and get dressed. It’s teaching them the basics of independent living.
As someone who works in a home for adults with various types of disabilities, including several women who are recipients of ABA therapy, while I feel somewhat uncomfortable with several aspects of how therapy is done, I still see it transforming people who are functioning at a much lower level than the people in this article who will never in a million years be “neurotypical” but who, by learning life skills, can live a life with dignity and with more independence than otherwise. It also makes it much easier for the caregiver as well (though that may sound heartless).
Bottom line: Purely social ABA for high-functioning people with autism may be potentially harmful, but don’t throw away the baby with the bath water.
If you have any firsthand experience with ABA and want to shed some new light on this discussion, please let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A reader presents a really interesting theory about autism:
The ABA treatment [discussed earlier by readers] dates back to a time when psychologists theorized that autistic people could not readily interpret social cues because their empathy was too low, owing to defects in their brains. Today there is a challenge to that assumption: They may have *too much* empathy, and so social interactions are too loud and frightening, causing them to withdraw.
Which is true? The answer should drive treatment approaches. It’s quite possible that the Skinner approach works superficially to produce specific desired responses but isn’t at all optimum.
There is a clue supporting the “too much empathy” theory. Autistic kids and adults tend to do very well in socializing with cats, dogs, horses, etc. Interacting with animals brings out more advanced socialization skills, which they can then use, to some extent, with other humans. It appears that they perceive less social threat from animals, from whom unconditional love towards kindly humans is typical. If autistic people instead have low empathy, this result ought to be very unlikely.
Too much light will blind you. Too much sound will deafen you. And too much empathy may be responsible for autistic withdrawal and a reduced capacity for interpreting social cues. This needs to be nailed down before we should be eager to grant blanket approval to ABA therapy. Skepticism and critical thinking are warranted.
For more reading, here’s a helpful post from the blog Aspertypical, written by a psychology grad student with Aspergers, called “Autistic Man’s Best Friend: The connection between pets and autism.” She in part points to the work of arguably the most famous American with autism, Temple Grandin, who has particularly strong insight when it comes to the animal connection:
Professor of animal science Dr Temple Grandin may be able to shed some light on this connection. In her paper ‘Thinking the Way Animals Do’, she describes how her autism makes it easier for her to understand animals, as her thinking processes are much like an animal’s. She explains how she often thinks in images, not language, much like an animal does. A horse trainer once told her that horses don’t think, they just make associations, to which she concluded that if making associations isn’t thinking, then she does not think either. It is true that those with autism often make strong associations to negative events, developing strange fears; the colour red, for example, is commonly associated with negative feelings for those with autism.
Finally another common factor between autistic man and animal is that fear is often the main emotion; both are often fearful of high pitched noises and become overwhelmed easily. So do people with autism prefer to be with animals and are more empathic towards them than humans because they understand their mental processes better?
Donald Trump sees everything—even his own children—as a reflection of himself.
The moments after your first child is born are humbling and overwhelming, the emotional equivalent of staring directly into the sun. You realize that you are suddenly responsible for a human life that you helped create, a sliver of two souls smuggled into another body, a person you will love and protect desperately for the rest of your life.
Shortly after Donald and Ivana Trump’s son was born, however, the future president had an unusual concern for a parent: What if this kid grows up and embarasses me?
“What should we name him?” Donald asked, according to Ivana’s memoir, Raising Trump. When Ivana suggested Donald Jr., the real-estate heir responded, “What if he is a loser?”
That anecdote helps explain one of the more memorable exchanges in Tuesday night’s presidential debate, as well as Trump’s approach to governance. The president’s Democratic rival, Joe Biden, sought to criticize Trump’s remarks about U.S. service members being “losers,” as first reported by The Atlantic. In doing so, Biden brought up his late son, Beau, who died of a brain tumor after earning a Bronze Star in the Army National Guard.
There’s something strange about this coronavirus pandemic. Even after months of extensive research by the global scientific community, many questions remain open.
Why, for instance, was there such an enormous death toll in northern Italy, but not the rest of the country? Just three contiguous regions in northern Italy have 25,000 of the country’s nearly 36,000 total deaths; just one region, Lombardy, has about 17,000 deaths. Almost all of these were concentrated in the first few months of the outbreak. What happened in Quito, Ecuador, in April, when so many thousands died so quickly that bodies were abandoned in the sidewalks and streets? Why, in the spring of 2020, did so few cities account for a substantial portion of global deaths, while many others with similar density, weather, age distribution, and travel patterns were spared? What can we really learn from Sweden, hailed as a great success by some because of its low case counts and deaths as the rest of Europe experiences a second wave, and as a big failure by others because it did not lock down and suffered excessive death rates earlier in the pandemic? Why did widespread predictions of catastrophe in Japan not bear out? The baffling examples go on.
An Atlantic investigation reveals who they are and what they might do on Election Day.
Photographs by Philip Montgomery
Image above:Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers
Stewart Rhodes wasliving his vision of the future. On television, American cities were burning, while on the internet, rumors warned that antifa bands were coming to terrorize the suburbs. Rhodes was driving around South Texas, getting ready for them. He answered his phone. “Let’s not fuck around,” he said. “We’ve descended into civil war.”
It was a Friday evening in June. Rhodes, 55, is a stocky man with a gray buzz cut, a wardrobe of tactical-casual attire, and a black eye patch. With him in his pickup were a pistol and a dusty black hat with the gold logo of the Oath Keepers, a militant group that has drawn in thousands of people from the military and law-enforcement communities.
I left with a dark feeling that our country was entering a dangerous chapter.
The digital clock next to my bed showed 4:06 a.m. As usual, my body clock had stirred me awake before my bedside radio alarm was set to go off, nine minutes later. I stared motionless at the pitch-black ceiling for a few minutes. With some effort and greater discomfort, I bent and stretched for a minute or two more before swinging my legs over the side of the bed. I shut off the alarm before it went off and then tiptoed awkwardly through the darkness to the bathroom, hoping not to stumble and wake my wife, Kathy, in the process. I had taken the same steps so many times over the preceding decades, I could have done it in my sleep. I probably did many times.
My eyes adjusted to the glare of the bathroom lights and I squinted at my reflection in the mirror. The Brennan genes had long coursed through my face, but I noticed something very different that morning. I could see my father’s deep-set eyes, tired yet piercing, looking straight into mine. “You can do it, John,” they seemed to be saying. “You can do it.” The tears welled up in my eyes, as the memory of my father’s life and the example he set filled me with deep pride and overwhelming sadness at the same time. The mere thought of briefing President-elect Donald Trump that afternoon and then gathering with my family a few short hours later at the wake of my father—the moral, ethical, and intellectual antithesis of Trump—jarred my very soul.
His verbal stumbles have voters worried about his mental fitness. Maybe they’d be more understanding if they knew he’s still fighting a stutter.
His eyes fall to the floor when I ask him to describe it. We’ve been tiptoeing toward it for 45 minutes, and so far, every time he seems close, he backs away, or leads us in a new direction. There are competing theories in the press, but Joe Biden has kept mum on the subject. I want to hear him explain it. I ask him to walk me through the night he appeared to lose control of his words onstage.
“I—um—I don’t remember,” Biden says. His voice has that familiar shake, the creak and the croak. “I’d have to see it. I-I-I don’t remember.”
We’re in Biden’s mostly vacant Washington, D.C., campaign office on an overcast Tuesday at the end of the summer. Since entering the Democratic presidential-primary race in April, Biden has largely avoided in-depth interviews. When I first reached out, in late June, his press person was polite but noncommittal: Was an interview really necessary for the story?
Former aides say that in private, the president has spoken with cynicism and contempt about believers.
One day in 2015, Donald Trump beckoned Michael Cohen, his longtime confidant and personal attorney, into his office. Trump was brandishing a printout of an article about an Atlanta-based megachurch pastor trying to raise $60 million from his flock to buy a private jet. Trump knew the preacher personally—Creflo Dollar had been among a group of evangelical figures who visited him in 2011 while he was first exploring a presidential bid. During the meeting, Trump had reverently bowed his head in prayer while the pastors laid hands on him. Now he was gleefully reciting the impious details of Dollar’s quest for a Gulfstream G650.
Trump seemed delighted by the “scam,” Cohen recalled to me, and eager to highlight that the pastor was “full of shit.”
The president’s former national security adviser on extremism, the election, and the survival of democracy
As the election nears, a parade of ex-administration officials and political advisers has come forward to denounce President Donald Trump and offer firsthand accounts of incompetence and venality running through his government.
One notable exception has been H. R. McMaster. The retired Army general served as Trump’s second national security adviser, leaving in early 2018 after about a year in the job. McMaster was part of a coterie of high-level advisers who met often with Trump, explaining global threats and laying out options for him to consider. He presumably knows plenty about the character of the 45th president and whether he’s fit to lead the free world. On that score, McMaster has typically kept mum. Writing a review in The Washington Post about McMaster’s recent book, Battlegrounds, Ben Rhodes, a former deputy NSA in the Obama administration, concluded: “In it, we learn almost nothing about his interactions with Trump or his personal opinion of the man.”
The president’s favorite debate tactic was a foundational form of disrespect—levied against his opponent as well as the nation.
There’s a story that Donald Trump tells, in The Art of the Deal, about playing with his brother Robert when they were kids. Each boy had his own set of blocks. Then Donald decided—in a whim that he suggests portended his future career—to turn the toys into a real-estate property. “I ended up using all of my blocks, and then all of his, and when I was done, I’d created a beautiful building,” Trump writes. “I liked it so much that I glued the whole thing together. And that was the end of Robert’s blocks.”
I thought of that story last night, as President Trump, having long since graduated to other forms of perfidy, met former Vice President Joe Biden in an event that was sold as a “debate” but was in practice one more parable about Trump’s great appetite for destruction. Over the course of the event, the president refused, once again, to condemn white supremacists. He told a far-right group known to engage in armed violence at protests to “stand back, and stand by.” He insulted Hunter Biden, before a national audience, to the father of Hunter Biden. As usual, Trump weaponized his words. But he also wreaked havoc through the words that were not said: Trump interrupted both Joe Biden and the event’s moderator, Chris Wallace, at nearly every turn. He used this rare moment of mass attention not to communicate with a weary public, but instead to sow empty chaos. He filibustered his own debate. The whole thing was a “shitshow,” CNN’s Dana Bash said, correctly. It was an insult to the memory of the more than 200,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19. It was an insult to the Americans who took time out of their hectic lives to listen to the men who seek to lead them. It was Donald Trump, taking the building blocks of a democracy and making them unusable for anyone else.
If the vote is close, Donald Trump could easily throw the election into chaos and subvert the result. Who will stop him?
Illustrations by Guillem Casasús / Renderings by Borja Alegre
There is a cohort of close observers of our presidential elections, scholars and lawyers and political strategists, who find themselves in the uneasy position of intelligence analysts in the months before 9/11. As November 3 approaches, their screens are blinking red, alight with warnings that the political system does not know how to absorb. They see the obvious signs that we all see, but they also know subtle things that most of us do not. Something dangerous has hove into view, and the nation is lurching into its path.
The danger is not merely that the 2020 election will bring discord. Those who fear something worse take turbulence and controversy for granted. The coronavirus pandemic, a reckless incumbent, a deluge of mail-in ballots, a vandalized Postal Service, a resurgent effort to suppress votes, and a trainload of lawsuits are bearing down on the nation’s creaky electoral machinery.
Donald Trump made it so, and Chris Wallace let him.
The 90-minute spectacle tonight calls into question the value of having any “debates” of this sort ever again. No one knows more about public life than he or she did before this disaster began; some people know less; and everyone feels and looks worse.
Start with the supposed moderator, Chris Wallace. It became obvious five minutes in that Donald Trump’s strategy was to interrupt, yell, insult, and disrupt as often as he could. This is a strategy that can work only if no one gets in the way of it, and Chris Wallace just let it go on. Maybe Wallace was caught by surprise by Trump’s bellicosity and primate-dominance. (But—c’mon.) Even so, two or three minutes of this should have been enough to adjust. He didn’t adjust. And he let Trump roll over him.