The Debate That Rattled Us

What it means when Trump grabs and shakes us

It’s a rare expression of political consensus: Everyone seems to agree that to watch the first debate of the 2020 US presidential general campaign was an emotionally disturbing experience.

Rather than engaging in a reasonable and thoughtful debate with his opponent, Joe Biden, Donald Trump badgered, bullied, and blustered almost without pause for 90 minutes. The moderator, Chris Wallace, was unable to restrain Trump, who refused to follow the debate rules his own campaign had agreed to.

Trump’s belligerence had a striking impact on Biden. Biden’s allies have tried to depict their candidate’s performance as controlled and measured, but the truth is that the Democrat was visibly shaken. He had difficulty forming complete sentences, with frequent verbal stumbles, and poorly formed arguments.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor of the Financial Times, observed, “Trump was clearly getting under Biden’s skin at the start by talking over him. It rattled Biden and he didn’t seem to know to respond.”

Rattled? It is vital for us to consider what it means for Biden to have been rattled by Trump in this debate, because it wasn’t just Joe Biden who felt rattled by Donald Trump’s behavior. Chris Wallace was rattled. Every person who watched the debate felt rattled too.

The physical manifestations of the emotion of being rattled may be similar to what happens when we have butterflies in the stomach. We feel off-balance, and somehow disconnected from the shell of our normal selves, as if something has broken lose within us and is moving erratically inside. The metaphor is that of a child’s rattle, a toy that is shaken within the fist of a baby to produce a satisfying sound. In this metaphor, however, those who feel rattled are not like the satisfied baby. They are like the rattle in the fist of the baby.

The resulting emotion is like ilinx in the sense of out of control turbulence, but instead of resulting in a kind of playful euphoria, the shaking that leads us to feel rattled makes us feel out of sorts, frightened, even sick. The sensation of chaotic motion within us is similar in some respects to the emotion of turmoil, but without the fluid connotations of that feeling. To be rattled is to feel desiccated inside, and whereas turmoil results from inner conflict, feeling rattled is a consequence of our inner response to something outside of ourselves that surprises us with its power to toss us around like a plaything.

Donald Trump’s strategy was clearly to demonstrate his power and control the debate by rattling Joe Biden and Chris Wallace. The psychological implications of this are chilling.

The fact Donald Trump gains and maintains his power by rattling the people around him suggests that he looks at other people as a baby looks at its toys. To Trump, people seem to be nothing more than objects that he can grab and manipulate to suit his own amusement. He looks at human beings as things without feelings that matter, possessions that he has the right to toss around and throw away when they no longer suit him. For him, politics is a game in which he alone must have control, with all others submitting to his will.

So it is that in the first debate of the 2020 US presidential general campaign, Donald Trump simultaneously demonstrated both how he has gained power and why he must not be allowed to maintain power. Like a greedy baby, he will not be satisfied until the entire world becomes his plaything. Like an angry baby, he will not hesitate to break his own toys when they fail to satisfy his demands.

This article was originally published at Emotional Granularity.

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