Pity the transcriptionists. From its very first minute, the first debate of the 2020 presidential election was off the rails. For 90 minutes, Donald Trump vomited a seemingly endless series of lies and interruptions, resulting in a spectacle that could barely be described as a debate at all.
One struggles to find the right metaphor. “Dumpster fire,” that trusty standby of the Trump era, may be both too twee and too contained to actually do justice to the proceedings. What happened onstage Tuesday night at Case Western Reserve University was unadulterated high-test chaos: a profoundly dispiriting distillation of the circus that is the last four years of American politics.
Naturally, this was Donald Trump’s strategy. He came to Cleveland, Ohio, with no real plan except to elbow his way into every question, arguing incessantly with both his opponent, Joe Biden, and moderator Chris Wallace. Whenever he found himself stuck in a spot, he lied—about his administration’s coronavirus response, about Joe Biden’s record, about his tax avoidance. For the most part, Trump seemed bent on pulling Biden into the gutter with him. The president didn’t want to speak truthfully about the disastrous state of the economy or the 200,000 Americans who have died of the coronavirus. He was more amped to attack Joe Biden’s son’s ties to China and past drug addiction, to suggest that the vice president was “stupid” for attending a state school, and accuse him of being racist and senile. But for longer stretches, he mostly just flailed wildly, throwing many punches and landing few. The ultimate effect of Trump’s performance was the prevention of any dialogue or discourse. He might not have vanquished his opponent, but he defeated the debate.
Trump’s campaign, underwater on every issue except the economy, is increasingly dependent on painting Biden as the addled marionette of the far left, with Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders pulling the strings. Trump’s reelection team will likely cull from Tuesday night’s affair enough instances of Biden stumbling over his answers to fuel a thousand campaign videos—it’s not that surprising, given the torrent of interruptions and distractions unleashed by the president. It’s anybody’s guess as to whether Trump’s many misstatements and lies will prove to be as viral. If the intention was to stage a high-minded, substantive debate about the president’s record, policy disagreements, or ideas, the president put an end to it. In its place, we received the by-now-familiar endless recitation of the president’s own pathetic grievances.
Biden had his stumbles, Trump had far more lies—and yet somehow Chris Wallace emerged the worst for wear. The Fox News anchor has a reputation as a tough and crafty interviewer, someone with a knack for clever traps and unexpected questions. At times, you could almost discern the shape of the debate Wallace had hoped to moderate; the contours of some of his ornate stratagems. He was no match for the chaos. Within 10 minutes, he’d lost control, struggling to hold the scene for brief snatches the rest of the night. All he could do was beg the president to stop interrupting—though he often seemed to intimate that Biden was equally to blame in the repetitive disorder that spilled onto the television screen. When Trump was asked to condemn white supremacist groups, Wallace let him go with a vague answer—the president will have enough to claim that he repudiated right-wing gangs, even though he did no such thing.
There should have been alarm bells a-jangling earlier this week, when Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., the co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, told CNN’s Brian Stelter, “We don’t expect Chris or our other moderators to be fact-checkers. The minute the TV is off there will be plenty of fact-checkers.” Trump, surely, was licking his chops. Wallace and the Commission surely understood that something like tonight’s train wreck was coming. Trump nevertheless treated them both like doormats: At some points, Wallace was reduced to shouting, “Mr. President, stop.” No one seemed to have prepared for the likeliest of outcomes. In a way, this too was a kind of distillation: Wallace, the debate functionary and guardian of tradition, left alone to impotently plead with the president to hew to polite norms. Trump steamrollered all of this. The Commission on Presidential Debates and the next moderators may now want to consider an option where they can cut the president’s microphone, if only to reduce the number of lies and interruptions.
Because of our infinite capacity for abuse and our inability to ever learn from our most obvious mistakes, there will be two more presidential debates. That is one of the most depressing sentences I can think of right now. There is no indication that those debates will be any different from this one, easily the worst in American political history. There was no good reason for tonight’s debate to devolve into a depressing spectacle. There will really be no excuse for the next two to be as chaotic and unbearable as the first. But it did, and they will.