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Earlier this week, which is to say Sunday night, the New York Times dropped a bombshell, an almost-October-surprise just a couple days too early: President Trump’s taxes. Long a white whale of political journalism, the documents obtained by the Times showed that, among other things, Trump paid just $750 in federal income tax in 2016, the same amount in 2017, and no federal taxes for 11 of the 18 years for which the paper had secured returns. In any other election year it would be the kind of thing that Trump’s opponent, Joe Biden, could leverage for weeks on the campaign trail. But this is 2020, and to paraphrase Drake, nothing is the same.
Not that Biden and the Democrats aren’t trying. In the lead-up to the first presidential debate tonight, the campaign released a video calling Trump’s taxes to attention, and set up an online calculator: "Do you pay more or less in federal income taxes than our 'billionaire' President?" Biden also released his own tax returns Tuesday afternoon. Republicans mostly kept quiet about the news. Trump tweeted about it. Pundits speculated about how the issue would play during the debate.
As it turned out, the president’s taxes were about the least confrontational aspect of the evening. The remaining 90-ish minutes were a barrage of interruptions during which very little sense was made. Each candidate got in their zingers—Biden telling Trump to “shut up” turned some heads—but for the most part, it felt like a Reddit thread turned into a play written by an AI trained entirely on misplaced snippets from Aaron Sorkin scripts. Points were made about Covid-19, about the economy, about climate change, but in the end they didn’t make much sense.
But here’s the thing: No one knows if Americans will still be talking about Trump’s tax returns in a week, or two weeks, or tomorrow. Same goes for health care, or jobs reports. In 2020, news moves fast, and the conversation around it—which, during the pandemic, is happening online more than ever—never stagnates. Moreover, thanks to filter bubbles, these conversations never seem to be happening in conversation with each other. One recent poll found just one percent of voters are undecided; polls should always be viewed with skepticism, but it still seems likely that Americans have found their place on the playground and plan to stay there, talking amongst themselves. In separate spheres what’s sounding in the echo chambers is often based on different assumptions, different interpretations of the facts. (And sometimes “alternative facts,” but that’s a story for another time.)
Americans are, in many ways, living in a political metaverse: a real world enhanced by 24-hour news tickers, reaction GIFs, Twitter threads, TikToks, and countless other points of commentary, most of it tangentially related to what actually happens in the corridors of Washington. Trump and Biden may have been the ones standing and breathing on that stage, but in the end they were avatars—rolling out tweet-ready lines just before getting cut off again, millions of indistinguishable voices yelling back at them from the digital abyss. Lots of folks took Fox News' Chris Wallace to task for his moderation, or lack thereof, but really, has any social network ever managed to do better?
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