Exclusive: Mr Chris Wallace On His Debate Night Debacle
Mr Chris Wallace at the start of the first Presidential debate, Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic, Ohio, 29 September 2020. Photograph by Mr Patrick Semansky/AP/Shutterstock
What a disaster Tuesday night was, amirite, really laying bare the gross underbelly of the US. That barrage of racism and bullying; the unnervingly personal threats; the description, in pornographic detail, of the various ways in which I would be penetrated and then die for my horrific handling of the debate that I was moderating.
Now, obviously, I am not that Mr Chris Wallace – nor, sadly, am I even the other one, the Mr Christopher Wallace, AKA Biggie Smalls, The Notorious BIG. I am not the son of 60 Minutes’ Mr Mike Wallace. I am not 72, despite my knees’ feeling to the contrary. And, as much as I would love to, I did not fecklessly host the first (and maybe, given the mess, and bout of Covid-19, last) Presidential debate of 2020. Not that that made of a whit of difference to the bots and bigots using my Instagram feed, Twitter DMs and texts to exorcise their bilious racism.
I’d love to say now that some of it was funny, or really even all that coherent. But this was not a lot of constructive criticism I was fielding intended for that other guy. These were not clever put downs or helpful how tos I got pouring into my phone and brain. All of it was racist. Much of it was sexual. And an enormous portion of it came bearing some imprimatur of QAnon – QAnon, those renowned Talmudic scholars of the dark web that they are, famous for their ability to ferret truth out of reams of Reddit threads and 4chan screeds. Clearly these once and future Nobel laureates had applied the same scholarly rigour in finding the correct social account to troll as they had in the rest of their work, by simply typing in @chriswa… and letting autotext take the wheel.
Or else – the alternatives here are a bit thrilling, actually. Did some radical racist conspiracy theorist really navigate to my page and think that the Fox News TV host was posting my thirst-trapping throwback pictures, topless, in LA, from the early 2000s? My page is closer to a Below Deck promo than it is to political commentary, and my avatars, on both Twitter and Instagram, look like Tintin in a suit, perhaps, but nothing like the milquetoast moderator from Tuesday’s shitshow. Truly, the mind boggles.
At any rate, after maybe an hour of clapping back at dolts in my mentions, deleting dozens and dozens (hundreds) of DMs and texts promising to do me grievous bodily harm, often imagined in sensational detail – in other words, after getting a light sampling of what so many women go through every day in the toxic churn of the internet – I figured out how to lock my comments, bar strangers from using my feed to exorcise their hate-fuelled fantasies, and tried to go to sleep. And that’s sort of where the fun really started. The anxiety attacks, the nightmares, yes, but also the worries about what all of this means big picture. Like, for democracy and identity and stuff.
“I can grudgingly allow that there is room online for two Messrs Chris Wallaces. We’ll just have to – as you would in a debate – announce our points of differentiation”
So, one, after a year of violent rhetoric online manifesting as very real violence outside (see: Mr Rittenhouse, Kyle), how, then, are we to perceive “threats” online? Gone: another night of sleep.
Two: mistaken identity, in real life, can be jarring, disorienting. If the word delirium means, literally, to be out of one’s furrow, being displaced from your groove of selfhood is the most panic-inducing delirium we can imagine.
Online, where so much of our identity is performed nowadays, a dismissal of your identity’s integrity, a denial and overwriting of it, even mistakenly, is a kind of existential erasure. If I cannot make my presence known there, on the plane of social media, if my avatar in this new real-life Tron does not have beside it a blue check of validation, and any old bot can impersonate me, or reassign my identity, ruling that I am not the Mr Chris Wallace I am, claim to be, hope to be, then where does ownership of identity rest? And with whom does the responsibility for the assignment of identity and authenticity reside?
If enough people, online, decided (in bad faith or otherwise) that I was some other Mr Chris Wallace, and would not then be swayed by facts, by truth, were instead putting their fingers in their ears and screaming la-di-da, fake news, etcetera, what recourse would I then have? Where could I go to be me?
Well, and three is the fantasia: the spell these people have to be under to watch that performance on Tuesday and come away with the feeling that the other Mr Chris Wallace was providing succour for the radical left, somehow, siding against the president, by… slightly meowing about following the rules he had agreed to? Then again, I am beginning to suspect that @snowadventurerprincess is not some outdoor alpine influencer who, according to her lovely note, just also happens to think that former President Obama and I ought to perform a sort of rough congress with one another.
Maybe Ms Princess is, like so many of the anonymous internet citizens excessively invested in our democratic processes, just a little matrix of internet impulses based at a server farm in Siberia, and less a subject to racism than the aggressive algorithm with which she’s been programmed. That might explain her spelling.
But, real or robotic, the Princess and her ilk have already proven the precarity of our democracy, how subject are our suburban moms to the virulent propaganda they see all day on Facebook, how vulnerable we are to voter depression, and general disillusionment. These are the same “people”, too, who would like to sow doubt in our voting system (where being the very precise Mr Chris Wallace I am matters quite a bit).
So, as much as I’d like to go cower in a cupboard somewhere (metaphorically, for I am very literally doing so as I type this), to delete my socials and kind of hide out and even change my name… I don’t think I will. I don’t think we’re ready to cede this plane to the bullies and bigots and bots just yet. Just as I’m not entirely ready to let go of my driver’s license and passport (useless as it is these days) – I mean, I can’t deal with going to the DMV for a name change right now, can you imagine?
I think even I can grudgingly allow that there is room online for two Messrs Chris Wallaces. We’ll just have to – as you would in a debate – announce our points of differentiation, the better to articulate our positions. He, for instance, is obviously the rich one among us, and successful. I… am the other guy. I’m from Cali; he’s from Chicago. He, apparently, has three Emmys and a Peabody, and I have a pear-shaped body. See, easy.
It was he, that Mr Chris Wallace, not this one, who so fabulously fumbled the job of moderating a debate that could decide the fate of our republic. I, on the other hand, am just a guy, looking at the internet, and begging you to like who I am. No matter who you think that is.