Debate

There was one fall, a few years ago, when I was feeling pretty bored with the job and decided to shake things up a bit. Instead of interviewing law students for summer jobs one at a time, I would schedule two candidates in each slot and let them both try to make their case to me at the same time, shouting over each other, interrupting, trying to denigrate their opposition, sometimes physical violence, one time a weird sexual advance that wasn’t quite clear in its intention.

It wasn’t really a success. I only did it with candidates I knew we weren’t going to hire anyway (kids with flaws, mental or physical, or who weren’t wearing the right shoes), because it was entirely for my own amusement. I wanted to see something different, something unexpected, something amazing.

Instead, it was all just disorganized chaos — and after a very short time, disorganized chaos isn’t fun anymore, unless it’s at a buffet, in which case disorganized chaos really never stops being amusing, especially if food starts to get thrown.

Last night’s debate was a perfect illustration of the problem with unfettered chaos, the problem when no one takes charge, when there are no adults in the room, when the stakes are gone, when you know there’s no accountability, no consequences, nothing matters, nothing counts.

I don’t know how we come back from this, as a country, how we come back to a place where people expect that words matter, that behavior matters, that there is some kind of authority worth respecting. It would be one thing if Trump was just an authoritarian leader. I understand authoritarianism. I totally get imposing your will on the people, refusing to listen to others, bullying your ideas through the system and forcing things to happen your way. Authoritarianism is my bread and butter. I am happy to scream at people to do all kinds of crazy things and force them to obey even when I don’t make any sense.

But for that to work, I need them to respect me.

And there needs to be some kind of point, even if it’s an stupid one.

“Go manually alphabetize these 8,000 email printouts by subject line” is a perfectly reasonable unreasonable thing for me to force someone to do. But the only way they’re going to do it is if they think I care whether or not it gets done, if they think there are stakes, if they think there will be consequences.

If I walked into someone’s office and just started speaking nonsense, “these are the best emails, you’re going to alphabetize them, and then you’re going to Shepardize them, and then you’re going to pulverize them, and then I’m going to move on to some other subject and tell you about how I think masks are OK, but not great, and I’d wear a mask, if I were robbing a bank, but I’m only going to wear a mask around my friends, the white supremacists, because they have pre-existing conditions that make them look like the Supreme Court,” then no one has any sensible reason to be scared of me, or do anything I order them to do.

I’ve lost my point. The debate must have infiltrated my brain that way. Okay, what was I saying? Yeah, authoritarianism. I understand being a dictator. What I don’t understand is being an incoherent bully. Have a message, have a point, strike some legitimate fear in people’s hearts, not just the fear that you’re too stupid to understand what you’re talking about.

The whole thing actually reminded me more of another experiment I ran, a few years before the other one, where I gave the law students scheduled to interview with me the wrong address, and had them show up at the back door of a crematorium. Why did I do that? I have no idea. I was bored. I thought it would be fun. One student ended up with a job offer. It’s been a great career for him. Now we send him all of the partners who die at their desks, and he gives us a bulk rate. I love when chaos works out.