Fun fact: The first debate of Election 2020 was just last week. Yes, the face-off between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden was a mere eight days ago. It was before President Trump announced he had tested positive for Covid-19, before he went to Walter Reed Medical Center for treatment only to return to the White House days later, ascend the balcony, take off his mask, and stand in front of Washington, DC, like Eva Perón. (Evita star Patti LuPone gave that performance zero stars, by the way.) It was also before reports emerged about scads of White House staffers and others in Trump’s orbit testing positive for coronavirus. It was before The Fly.
OK, none of those facts were really “fun.” (Well, The Fly is, but we’ll come back to that in a minute.) The point is that, despite all of those facts, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris took part in the second debate of the 2020 election tonight. It was as historic as it was ill-advised: Historic because it marked the first time a Black woman had ever taken the stage as a vice presidential candidate. Ill-advised because even though the candidates were 12 feet, 3 inches apart and separated by plexiglass like toppings at a Shoney’s salad bar, they were still debating in the middle of a pandemic, in a closed room, where one of the participants has been in close proximity to a man who has recently been diagnosed with a virus that has killed more than 210,000 Americans.
Even before the debate started, there was speculation as to how it would play out. Would Pence be able to dodge questions about the administration’s handling of Covid-19? Would Harris’ race and sex be a factor in how voters responded to her remarks? Why the hell did the Trump campaign invite long-deceased rapper Tupac Shakur to the debate?
Only some of those questions got answered. In a sparring match that at the very least had fewer interruptions than the first presidential debate, the running mates tackled everything from climate change to abortion to China. Barbs were thrown and facial expressions were expressed, but overall it seemed like we were finally seeing a conventional political debate.
And then came The Fly. Just as Pence was discussing racial injustice and the police killing of Breonna Taylor, a housefly landed on his head. And stayed there. For a while. Of all the things that could happen txo derail the internet discourse around a vice presidential debate, having a fly swoop in and steal the show has got to be the most apropos for 2020.
For those actually on the internet, though, it also felt like 2012, like all those Twitter jokesters who felt like they hadn’t been given a political alley-oop since “binders full of women” suddenly awoke from an eight-year weed nap and got to work. Timelines couldn’t move fast enough to keep up. People made jokes about Jeff Goldblum; other folks dug up images of Biden holding a flyswatter. Within 30 minutes the fly had multiple Twitter accounts. It was kind of nice.
It’s also kind of disheartening. During the last presidential debate there were so many interruptions and jabs, the time for substantive conversation was limited to almost none. Then, as the frustration from last week’s events flowed into this week’s, all it took was a fly to derail an otherwise necessary conversation. The stress was—and is—so high, even the smallest thing can serve as a release valve.
Yes, here we are, a moment so full of nervous laughter that the fly in the ointment is politics itself. Tomorrow will bring new news, so for now let’s enjoy Mike’s little pest.
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