a Trump-Biden debate (in an alternate universe)

It’s 8:50 pm on September 29, 2020. A Tuesday.

Bzzt. You get a notification on your phone.

First Presidential Debate
Assembly will be live at 9 pm EST

That’s right - today is the day that Donald Trump goes up against Joe Biden. A shameless reality TV star vs. Obama’s token white friend. Angry creamsicle vs. goofy Uncle-in-Chief. Narcissism vs. dementia.

You click the notification and it takes you to the Assembly app.

A video starts to play automatically. You hear patriotic music as images of the candidates slide along the screen. A voice speaks over the teaser:

“Tonight. Donald Trump. Joe Biden. Face to face on the debate stage for the first time. This is the first presidential debate for the 2020 election, right here on Assembly News - where you’re a part of the story.”

You click the ‘casting’ icon in the corner of the video. The living room TV flickers to life as video and audio jump to the larger display.

An anchor appears on the screen and starts the pre-debate coverage. The video shows scenes of the debate stage being prepared by techs for the event as the talking heads do their thing.

You glance back down at your phone. You see a globe of the earth slowly rotating over a black background. The planet is shown with satellite-quality details. While it spins, pinpricks of light are appearing on the surface. There are huge clusters of light around very populated cities like New York and Los Angeles. In the corner of the screen you see a number getting larger and larger: 47 million people and counting.

On the TV, the pre-debate coverage continues. The hosts are currently discussing a notably high number of rejected mail-in ballots in North Carolina. There is a little picture-in-picture of the presidential escort driving into the venue parking lot.

You look back down at your phone and navigate to the “Trending Topics” section of the app to see what people are talking about.

You see a visualization that looks like bubbles of different sizes and colors. Some of them are very large and some very small. There are a few that have elliptical shapes, but most are circular. As you watch, they are growing and shrinking, and some are slowly moving in various directions. You even notice as one of the elongated shapes splits into two smaller bubbles.

You click on a medium-sized purple bubble and the visualization zooms in and centers on it. Some text swims into view. It reads, “Debate Drinking Games”. There’s a scrolling number floating in the corner of the bubble - 1.2k related comments.

You involuntarily exhale through your nose in amusement as you click on the bubble. A live feed of comments appears on the screen. You watch as a few comments scroll by…

hard mode: drink every time Biden says “Here’s the deal”
finish drink - candiudate argues with the moderator
insulting the other guy: take a sip
chug while candidate is speaking over the moderator
take a shot each time Biden forgets the question
guys…. Im scared for my liver

You scroll through the comments for a minute or so until you hear the music picking up. Turning your attention back to the TV, you watch as the camera settles on the moderator. He begins to speak.

Good evening from the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic. I’m Chris Wallace of Fox News and I welcome you to the first of the 2020 presidential debates between President Donald J Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

This debate is sponsered by the Commission on Presidential Debates. The Commission has designed the format. Six roughly 15-minute segments with 2-minute answers from each candidate to the first question, then open discussion for the rest of the segment. Both campaigns have agreed to these rules.

We are excited to announce, for the first time in the history of the presidential debate, we will be making use of the Assembly platform to curate feedback directly from you the viewer as the debate goes on. At any time during this event, we encourage you to post comments and questions through the Assembly app or online at Assembly.com. As the moderator, I will periodically look over the trending topics and questions you pose to the candidates, and interject your feedback to the candidates at my discretion.

For the record, I decided the topics and the questions in each topic. I can assure you: none of the questions has been shared with the Commission or the two candidates. This debate is being conducted under health and safety protocols designed by the Cleveland Clinic, which is serving as the health security advisor to the Comission for all 4 debates. As a precaution, both campaigns have agreed that candidates will not shake hands at the beginning of tonight’s debate. The audience here in the hall has promised to remain silent. No cheers, no boos or other interruptions so we, and more importantly you, can focus on what the candidates have to say. No noise - except for right now as we welcome the Republican nominee President Trump and the Democratic nominee Vice President Biden.

A smattering of applause from the sparse crowd fills the hall as the two men lumber to their podiums. They awkwardly acknowledge the other’s presence.

Wallace: Our first subject is the Supreme Court. President Trump, you nominated Amy Coney Barrett over the weekend to succeed the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg. You say the Constitution is clear about your right to submit this nomination. Vice President Biden, you say this is an abuse of power. My question to both of you tonight: why are you right and your opponent wrong AND where do you think a Justice Barrett would take the Court.

Trump: It’s simple. We won the election. Elections have consequences. Amy is a phenomenal nominee. Top. Respected by all. Good in every way. Liberals love her, we love her. We won the election, we can choose her, she’s great. And by the way, the Democrats- they wouldn’t even think about giving up the nomination. Definitely would happen in reverse. We won, we have the right.

Biden: I.. the American people. Have a right to have a say who the Supreme Court nominee is. They have the say when they vote for the president and for their senators. We’re in the middle of an election right now. Tens of thousands have already voted. We should wait so they can have the say. It’s the only way the people get their say.
What’s at stake? Obamacare. He’s slamming a repeal through, wants Barrett to help push it through. Women’s rights are on the table. People with pre-existing conditions, 100 million. Pregnant women. A lot of people have pre-existing conditions. It’s not right. What if the people want their Obamacare? Need to wait. Hear from the voters.

Trump: There aren’t 100 million people with pre-existing conditions. People already had their say. I’m still president until the clock runs out Joe. 100 million totally wrong number. Bigger problem is you want to take people’s private health insurance away. Socialist.

[candidates speaking over each other, Wallace interjecting]
Wallace: Open discussion, please continue Vice President.
Biden: I want to expand Obamacare, increase it. And uh one of the big debates, 23 of my colleagues. We fought to make sure they can have private insurance. That’s my proposal-
Trump: -Not what you said. Your party doesn’t say that. They’re socialist. They dominate you-
Biden: I am the democratic party right now. The platform is what I say I approve of-
Trump: -Not according to Harris.
Biden: -It’s only what I approved of. Here’s the deal, it’s gonna wipe out pre-existing conditions- and by the way, the 20.. 200 million.. 200 thousand that have died on his watch. They, how many of those have survived? 7 million have contracted COVID. What happens to them if you strike down Obamacare?
[candidates speaking over each other]
Trump: Joe, you had 308 thousand military people dying because of bad military health care so don’t tell me about this-
Biden: -I’m happy to talk about this. Here’s the deal-
Trump: -If you were here, it woulda been 2 million people because you were late on the draw. You didn’t want me to ban China, which was heavily infected, didn’t want me to ban- much later. Late on the draw-
Wallace: -Alright, gentlemen. Mr. President. Mr. President. Mr. President. Mr. President-
Biden: -You’re not gonna be able to shut him up-
Wallace: -as a moderator, we are going to talk about COVID in the next segment-
Biden: uh uh
Wallace: -but go ahead.

Biden: Let me finish. The point is, the president also, opposes Roe v Wade. That’s on the ballot as well, in the Court. In the Court-
Trump: -What are you talking about, why is it on the ballot? It’s not on the ballot.
Biden: -Because, you said- On the Court, it’s on the ballot in the Court.
Trump: -There’s nothing happening there.
Biden [softly]: Donald, will you just be quiet for a minute.
Trump [loudly]: And you don’t know her view on Roe v Wade.

Wallace: Alright, well alright. [uncomfortable laughter] We have a lot to unpack here. The next topic will be healthcare. We’ll return to Roe v Wade later. But first, we have some feedback from the viewers.

One trending topic, which we have independently confirmed for veracity, clarifies a point of contention brought up earlier regarding the number of Americans with pre-existing conditions. Vice President Biden claimed it to be 100 million while President Trump claimed that number to be inaccurate. As it turns out, neither candidate is in the wrong here. The Kaiser Foundation estimates there are 53.8 million adults with pre-existing conditions while an Avalere study estimates 102 million Americans with pre-existing conditions. This suggests that the true number is somewhere within that very wide range. Candidates, would you like to briefly respond to this?

Trump: Never heard of the Avelere study. Don’t know about them, would encourage people to look into that. But I will say I’ve spoken with Kaiser, fine people. Excellent people. Willing to take their word on it. They do a tremendous job.

Biden: Here’s the deal. 50 million or 100 million - still important to see it in context. They rely on the benefits of Obamacare. We need to make sure they are taken care of.

[candidates start to speak over each other, Wallace interjects]

Wallace: Let’s move on to the next subject: healthcare. I noticed one of the trending questions is very similar to the question I planned to pose to the candidates, so I am opting to ask the viewer’s question.

President Trump, this one goes to you first. I will read it now: “President Trump, you’ve claimed that people with pre-existing conditions will be protected even under the repeal of Obamacare, and point to a recent executive order in which you expressed this desire. Legal experts have described it as “largely symbolic” because it doesn't contain language that can actually be enforced for the protection of people with pre-existing conditions. Are you willing to commit now to hold off on a repeal of Obamacare until such protection is legally enforced and guaranteed?”

Trump: First of all, I guess I’m debating you not him, but that’s ok, I’m not surprised. [Wallace laughs awkwardly] There’s nothing symbolic. I’m cutting drug prices. Something no president has had the courage to do because I’m going up against big pharma. Drug prices are going to go down 80-90%. [motions at Joe Biden] You could have done in your 47-year period in government but you didn’t. Take insulin for example. It was destroying families. The cost. I’m getting it so cheap, it’s like water to tell you the truth. so cheap-

[Trump and Wallace speaking over each other]

You look away from the screen. Ten minutes in and already off the rails.

Back in the app, you click over to Trending Topics to see what the discussion is looking like now. Swiping up on the bubbles, you open a drawer with a list of trending topics and questions.

Can we mute their mics? - 6.3k comments
jokes - 6.1k comments
feel bad for the moderator - 3.4k comments
they’re both too old - 2.9k comments
“I am the democratic party”, yeah ok - 1.8k comments
the moderator is biased - 1.8k comments

Your curiosity is piqued by the last topic, and you read through a few of the comments in that topic group. Presently a notification slides down from the top of your phone screen, “New poll available.”

You click and arrive at a poll with a few answer choices:

Which candidate better represented your interests on the subject of healthcare?

  • Donald J Trump

  • Joe Biden

  • neither

You submit your answer and watch as a bar chart appears showing the total results from all participants. You’re surprised by the size of the ‘neither’ answer choice. It’s larger than you would have hoped… Could that impact voter turnout?

The debate goes on much in the same way over the course of the next hour. The candidates squabble like cartoons of grumpy old men while Wallace plays the part of an overwhelmed kindergarten teacher. The discussion online spirals into many directions as large segments of the audience entertain themselves with jokes about bleak futures and moving to other countries. As the debate goes on, the topic “the moderator is biased” and “feel bad for the moderator” continue to swell, almost in lockstep. It’s interesting to watch it happening in real-time.

A few radical elements make their presence felt in the trending topics, most notably the Proud Boys and white supremacists when Trump tells them to “stand back and stand by” like some sort of general ordering troops.

You’re relieved to see that the topics associated with the far-right and the far-left radical groups are relatively smaller in size than you would have expected from the hubbub they seem to generate. A ray of hope for those of us that hope to avoid violent civil unrest.

It’s an exhausting and demoralizing debate, and you can’t help but rub your temples. Neither candidate looked good up there.

But maybe there is a silver lining of hope in the shit-storm sky… After all, most of the 73 million viewers were not radicals. Actually, it seems that, for the most part, people felt like they were in the same boat. A really crappy boat, but the same boat nonetheless.

A news event that didn’t divide the American people into radical camps. Imagine that.

Instead, it made all of us feel terrible, together.

The Assembly app in this story is a vision of what I hope to make one day, but at this point, it’s just a dream.

I hope that one day we will apply AI to assist humans with large-scale discussions. There is so much noise in our discussion spaces, in media and online, that it is difficult/impossible for anyone to sift through all of the data and understand what the shape of the world is.

It’s 2020. We live in a world where complex and large-scale problems are poorly understood. The pandemic, climate change, civil unrest, poverty, hunger, war. Coming together to solve these problems can be a difficult, uncomfortable, and slow-moving process.

What could we achieve if we understood each other in real-time? If we could easily see and understand the data behind the discussion, figure out where we stand, and act from the foundation of a shared consensus? How can we use technology to better collaborate on solving these problems?

My friends and I have started Assembly to find out if we can move the needle in that direction, even a little bit. We’ve been working on it secretly, chipping away little by little- but honestly, we’re not sure how we’re going to tackle this challenge and what we’ll try bringing to the market. We have a big challenge in front of us and we don’t know what the future holds.

In the meantime, I hope this Substack newsletter will help start a conversation. I’m planning to use this newsletter to discuss the designs we’re considering for our products, as well as the ideas and science behind the vision. I’ll also be peppering in a few short stories that might help flesh out and bring the vision to life.

If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, please subscribe to follow along. We’d love to have you.