No one could have seen it coming: A debate with Donald Trump was a complete disaster.
The first showdown between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden set a breathtaking new low for an already tired tradition, making previous examples of poorly managed debates look like a WASP wives book group passing around a plate of sugar cookies. Biden came in with a healthy supply of “get a load of this idiot!” grins locked and loaded, but these quickly gave way to genuine frustration and dismay at Trump’s repeated interruptions and shouting. Moderator Chris Wallace’s efforts to regain control of the proceedings were reasonably valiant, but futile. As it turned out, there was no point in Biden trying to debate this man. So why did he?
This debate was the product of a democracy that’s gone to seed, replete with examples of our country’s politics finally beginning to resemble the sort of cursed, fascist Jerry Springer Show that it was always meant to be. You could point to Donald Trump claiming that he “doesn’t know” Beau Biden, Joe’s son, who tragically died of brain cancer in 2015. You could cite Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacists and his decision, instead, to command the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by”—a message that has reportedly been received by the Proud Boys online with great glee. You could note that, once again, Donald Trump failed to promise he would honor the results of the election. Instead, he encouraged his fans to go and “observe” polling locations, in a transparent attempt to dragoon his supporters into plans to intimidate Democratic voters on Election Day. (I wonder if those last two examples are perhaps connected?)
For all the misery experienced by those who sat through the entire event, it is hard to discern what part, if any, really mattered. If the extant polling numbers are any guide, Trump came into the evening desperately needing to add voters to his current base of support. It is inconceivable that any significant number of Americans might now change their planned vote based on what happened during Tuesday’s debate. Anyone who would hoot and holler at Trump’s hyperaggressive, faux-macho shouting or his half-grasped interjections of lore from the Fox News Extended Universe (Burisma! $3.5 million!) is almost certainly already an avid Trump supporter. Anyone who sympathized with Biden’s impatience or saw Trump’s aggression as unhinged and unbefitting the president is likely already a Biden voter.
It is, incredibly, not true that there are zero undecided voters in America, but there are substantially fewer at this point in the election season, compared to the last presidential election. It’s anybody’s guess whether any of these tuned in to tonight’s debate, let alone if they saw something amid the frenzy that might change their mind; even the most seasoned political scientist would be hard-pressed to identify that catalyzing moment. The postdebate coverage that followed was of a shell-shocked tone: more “What the hell just happened to us?” than the usual “winners and losers” pablum.
Adam Serwer once memorably wrote that, for Trump, the cruelty is the point of everything he does. At Tuesday night’s debate, however, there was no point. Trump broke the rules of the debate because he wanted to do so. He wanted to talk when it wasn’t his turn, so he did. It wasn’t necessarily “better” for him, politically or rhetorically; it certainly didn’t make for a better TV viewing experience, though his skills as a showman have been perennially overpraised. He didn’t shout over Biden to make a point about how much stronger and more powerful he is, though his supporters will surely have seen it that way, easily impressed as they are. He dominated the evening, but while no one could contain him, he can’t be said to have been in control. These weren’t a barrage of carefully chosen punches; these were the thrashings of a cornered coward. If you are looking to me to provide you with a cable news–style Winner of the Night, the only victors were nihilists looking for proof that we’re doomed. And, of course, the Proud Boys.