Parenting in the twilight of democracy

Will my five-year-old's first big presidential debate also be his last?

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The first time Orion saw a presidential debate was in the spring, when a chill still hung in the air. He is five-and-a-half. He has his own preferred shows (“Paw Patrol,” “Peppa Pig”; he seems to have internalized our advocacy of “Sesame Street” as proof that something must be wrong with it). But sometimes he nestles into the sofa when we are watching a grown-up program. In the spring it was one of the Democratic primary debates. Something about it struck him from the beginning. He liked the format. He liked the side-by-side boxes into which they put two people having an exchange. Given that it’s hard for him to understand the words being said, I began to think of him as a one-boy body-language focus group, asking whom he preferred at certain moments. (He took a liking to Bernie’s body language, for what it’s worth.) And, for whatever reason, the debate struck him as unusually compelling television (for an adult show). He let it be known that, should future presidential debates appear, he would like to know.

I can no longer assure him that presidential debates will continue into the future, because such debates depend on a culture, on norms, on a democratic order that may not hold. Orion was born just a few months before the would-be president of the United States came down a golden escalator. In that short blink of history, a republic has gone from being the one thing I knew I’d give him, no matter what befell his family, to an inheritance I can no longer promise.

On Tuesday night he and his younger sister had had pizza and watched movies. (It’s a pandemic.) As bedtime came, they had the unaccountable energy of coked-up Don Jr. in an impromptu but important Twitter video. They didn’t look at all like sleep. I was already watching the debate “pregame show,” and Orion asked what I was tuned into, and that’s when I remembered his debate thing. So did he. Immediately he asked if he could stay up and watch, too. His baby sister was entwined with us at that very moment, and I told him, by a combination of whisper and gesture, that, yes, he could, but only him, and only if he didn’t tell her and helped ensure she went down to bed. He agreed.

So there he was, sprawled on the sofa behind us, in his black-and-red plaid pajamas, the legs of which were once too long and now resemble shark teeth, because we realized that, if you’re going to cut pajama bottoms, there is no rule saying it has to be a straight line. And of course my wife, Priya, and I had no way of knowing that this, his first official presidential debate, as in Commission-on-Presidential-Debates presidential debate, all-channels-simultaneously presidential debate, the kind of debate I still remember watching with my parents three decades ago — we didn’t know his introduction to the genre would be its worst incarnation to date.

It is funny how the mind slowly begins to appreciate a gathering truth. No one tells you it’s the worst presidential debate ever in real time, although Twitter does help. Slowly it dawns on you that you are watching something not ordinary. And nothing now is ordinary, but I’m talking about really not ordinary, about the genuinely extraordinary. And it’s funny how, as a parent, you watch for yourself, and you also watch for and through them. You have moments of seeing it as they might, of trying to call up how you used to see things when you were small. And so, as I watched, I began to tremble with rage at the president’s hijacking of the debate and frontal assault on democracy. And I kept toggling into Orion’s view, or what I imagined his view to be. I kept thinking that I had chosen to introduce him, in all his earnest curiosity, to this rite of democracy at the very hour when it is being shattered.

He is too young to have any context. You have to know a norm to appreciate its destruction. But he could tell something was very off in the show. He could see that one man kept talking, despite another person beside him who wanted to speak and a moderator (a teacher figure, in his mind) trying to keep order. I asked him if a situation like that had ever arisen in his school, and he said it had: a student refusing to be quiet and a teacher stepping in to defend the class. He seemed confused that a problem he has seen handled so many times could not be handled on what he understood to be a pretty important stage with very high stakes.

My generation was already set to be the first to raise children less well-off than we were. Now we may not even be able to pass on a healthy democracy. It was hard explaining to Orion what the president said, because to express it was to normalize it, given all that Orion doesn’t yet know. How do you explain that the president is inciting violence without leaving the impression that this is what presidents are supposed to do? How do you explain that many votes may not be counted at the very moment you are explaining why it is so essential to vote? For the parents of children my children’s age, the strange burden of this time is having to educate the young about America at the precise moment when it is falling apart. They are too young to know any other normal.

I went to bed feeling the heaviness in my heart and my body which I felt on the night that Trump won the election in 2016. It was strange, because in no way at all had Trump won the debate. On the contrary. Sure, he probably revved up some of those piddling men who have found in him an inversion of their own terror of weakness. But he himself is weak — like them, so full of fear. Yet that means there is nothing he will not do. He knows he will soon be living in federally owned housing, one way or the other — the White House or the big house. He will do anything to make it go his way.

So I don’t know what Orion’s first official presidential debate will end up meaning to him in his life, and how, if at all, he will remember it. I truly wonder now, at this dark hour, if it will be a strange, aberrant introduction to a tradition that soon tips back to a sense of normalcy: a funny story he and his friends share when he, like me, turns gray. Or will he remember that once he was young and got his parents to let him stay up late and was wearing pajamas cut on the bottom like shark teeth when he saw his country try to watch something together and decide something together for the very last time?

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