“All has been occupied by Noise—Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile—Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth.” — C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
The first presidential debate of the turbulent 2020 election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was a tour de force of tension. If the sheer power of Noise was, in some way, the goal of this debate, especially for the Trump campaign, then it was a roaring success. Noise there was, and plenty of it, too, to the point of cringing incredulity. But it certainly left something to be desired by way of stating clear positions for the American people to judge. The noise that is consuming our politics may be the occasion for a cultural quietus—whether that quietus be one of death or peace remains to be seen.
The first presidential debate of the election cycle is often regarded as setting the stage for election night, where first impressions are made for November 3rd, and the candidates establish who they are with respect to one another and the voters. In what may be looked back upon as the most contentious and chaotic debate in the history of the presidential debates, Donald Trump brought his trademark braggadocio while Joe Biden appeared shaky and shellshocked by the President’s bluster. The very color of the men’s faces bespoke their presence, with Trump as burnished and crimson as ever and Biden as pale and frail as a ghost.
The animosity and impatience these opponents bore each other was plain. Besides interrupting and speaking over each other constantly, Biden called Trump “a clown,” “a liar,” “a racist,” and “the worst president America has ever had.” Trump bulldozed back, questioning Biden’s intelligence, stamina, and political career. The most unfortunate aspect of the event, perhaps, was how Trump lacked the discipline to refrain from below-the-belt jabs at Biden’s son, Hunter, and his drug addiction. The real issue—Hunter’s alleged shady dealings with Russia—were dragging into the periphery just for the sake of getting under Biden’s skin and make him lose his composure. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the Biden campaign refused to participate in the next two debates because of Trump’s behavior, which would be an opportunity lost for the President to make good use that platform and showcase his strength and the weakness of his Democratic rival.
It was a noisome and rather nasty event, and more of a verbal barroom brawl than a debate, with Biden even saying to the President of the United States, “Will you shut up, man?” It certainly bore none of the poise and dignity that Reagan brought to the debate stage, or the brilliance of argument that began the tradition of these public debates with Lincoln and Douglas back in 1858. Does this barrage to claw and cry over each other like crowing roosters, while ruffling as many feathers as possible, decry the state of our political union? As Mark Twain said, “Noise proves nothing. Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she laid an asteroid.” Is this noise simply a cacophony of chaos, or just the loud heavy machinery required to drain the swamp? Is there something about this noise that is not simply infernal?
Just as there is a time for fighting, perhaps there is also a time for noise. There is little point in debating over matters where there is no common moral or political ground and only callous contention. For all their open-armedness, liberals have some of the most closed minds imaginable. Furthermore, when reason itself is abandoned—when babies are disposable, when sex is mutable, when Marxist self-destruction is applauded—can there be any expectation of rational debate? Again, perhaps some obstinate overgrowth must simply be noisily cleared away without argument, and that with fire and brimstone. It may be that only once the terrain is purged of distracting, tangled nonsense can there be some realization of the truth.
What is truth? Pilate’s immortal question rings above the ruckus, asked as he played the cunning politician behind closed doors with the King of Kings as a dangerous noise growled in the public square. What is truth? The first presidential debate of 2020 certainly did not offer any answer over 2,000 years later. In these days and in our current political atmosphere, who knows what may be true? The so-called pandemic is a clear example of the confusion we are facing. No one really knows how to pare and cut through the noise, whether it be the noise of a debate like this or the noise of media spin rooms. Our politics are too noisy to know what truth is.
But the one making the most noise to win might very well allow for a place where Catholics can find some peace, a place where some sanity might take root again. In the silence that can lie sheltered beneath President Trump’s storm a new hope might be secured to protect the precious lives of the unborn; a calm may become established that will grow the economy and replace fear with faith. A stillness may prevail where Americans may come to reasonable and rational agreements about the arguments over race, religion, health care, and immigration. The noise may be deafening and brutal, but the one making the noise is the one promising to deliver more of the solid, straightforward conservatism that will—and I’ll say it—make America great again.
The Democratic arguments for a wholesome society are just as shaky and shallow as Joe Biden’s Catholicism. President Trump may be hard to take on a debate stage, but he commands a strength that is loud enough to dominate and even derail the Left—or so it seems. The hatred that is so palpable for him is a good sign that his noise is not necessarily the noise that Screwtape exalts.
That being said, God is not in the hurricane or the earthquake or the fire. He is in the gentle breeze. He is in the silence. But perhaps that mystical experience of Elijah teaches that the hurricane, earthquake, and fire have to blow themselves out before the silence comes.
[Photo credit: YouTube/CNBC]