The first presidential debate in 2020 was a miserable business, more of a verbal brawl than discussion. The candidates kept interrupting each other, with Trump paying particular attention to heckling while Joe Biden struggled lonely to get a few words to the point. Trump was manic and Biden often seemed discouraged and baffled.
Dana Bash from CNN was bluntly honest when she said: “That was a shit show.” Your news colleague Jake Tapper more politely called it “a hot mess” and a “dumpster fire”. Rachel Maddow from MSNBC described it as “a monstrous incomprehensible display of logorrhea.”
Trump was known to use sharp elbows in debates, but never has he been so stormy and eager to shout down a rival. How The New York Times Reports“Trump, who heckled and paused throughout the debate, appeared aggressive and confident, and once asked Mr Biden to identify law enforcement groups who had endorsed his campaign. The president also claimed that Antifa would overthrow Mr Biden. “
The fault for the catastrophic debate lies not only with Trump but also with Chris Wallace, the moderator, who did nothing to mitigate the constant flurry of insults and crosstalk. He allowed Trump to rant and rave without pushing back. Instead, Wallace sounded like a nervous nephew trying to calm a drunken uncle who was hanging out over a Thanksgiving dinner. When he asked questions, Wallace often phrased them in the right, as in his questions about whether protesters should be prosecuted. He also claimed that the economy is recovering unexpectedly robustly, which may be the case for the stock market but not for long-term unemployment or other life indicators for ordinary workers.
But beyond Trump’s foaming climax, the actual content of what he said was often disturbing. In fact, he used the circus-like atmosphere he created to heighten his authoritarian threat to American democracy.
The two most notable examples were Trump’s unwillingness to categorically criticize racist political violence and his fear of electoral security.
In response to one of Wallace’s few powerful moments – an unvarnished appeal to the president to condemn the violence of the white supremacists – Trump shouted the proud boys, a member-based authoritarian organization that has instigated numerous clashes with left-wing protesters and actively promoted political violence. Far from criticizing the group, Trump’s comments appeared to be designed to legitimize them. The New York Times distilled the catastrophic exchange:
President Trump refused to categorically denounce white supremacists on Tuesday evening and turned a question about right-wing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia and Portland, Oregon into an attack on “left” protesters.
“Are you ready tonight to condemn white supremacists and groups to say they have to resign and not add to the violence and number of cities we saw in Kenosha and Portland?” Chris Wallace, the host, asked the president.
“Sure. I’m ready for that,” said Mr. Trump, quickly adding, “Almost everything I see is from the left wing. Not the right wing.”
When Mr. Wallace continued the President asked, “What will you call her?”
“White supremacists,” replied the moderator.
“Proud guys, stand back and stand by,” he said, apparently turning to the far right group. Then he added, “But I’ll tell you something. I’ll tell you what. Somebody has to do something about Antifa and the left. This is not a real problem. This is the left wing.”
Wallace then uniquely neglected to press Trump on that point and proceeded as if nothing special had been said.
Trump also said he was “counting” on the Supreme Court to investigate the outcome of the upcoming election. Many of his lengthy, often off-topic comments were riddled with predictions of disaster in the number of votes to come. Towards the end of the debate, he issued his usual dire warnings about postal voting and urged his supporters to monitor polling stations. “This is going to be a scam like you’ve never seen before,” he said. How The Washington Post Reports“Trump said he could not agree to an election result based on millions of ballots sent in the mail, especially if many of those ballots are received and counted after election day.”
We will see in the days and weeks to come what impact, if any, the debate had on voters. It’s entirely possible that the night was a wash or a net loss for Trump. His behavior here was not designed to attract wavering voters. Rather, he gathered the people already on board and tried at the same time to yell down Joe Biden so that Biden’s message could not be heard.
But even if Trump loses voters from this debate, he may have managed to score a victory by creating fear of the upcoming elections, which makes them seem even more uncertain and dangerous than before. He has everything to benefit from a chaotic atmosphere – to better delegitimize the elections – if he loses.
Overall, the debate was part of Trump’s larger attack on American democracy. Thanks to Chris Wallace’s careless moderation, Trump once stuck a knife in the throat of the republic.