Who is to blame for Donald Trump’s disastrous performance in Tuesday’s presidential debate? The easy answer is the person who is to blame for most things: Trump himself. Both Trump’s supporters (including Chris Christie, who helped him prepare) and detractors settled on “too hot” as a preferred euphemism, which undersells the insanity. The president was downright rabid, shouting insults and grievances and conspiracy theories over both Joe Biden and moderator Chris Wallace. He was deranged, dismissing 200,000 Covid-19 deaths, mocking Joe Biden’s son’s drug addiction, and generally behaving like a terrible person. Every available poll confirmed what was obvious: Trump not only “lost,” he lost in catastrophic fashion.
But to Trump’s supporters, he cannot fail—he can only be failed. While some alleged that Biden was receiving biting one-liners like “Will you shut up, man” via an earpiece, the president and his allies have largely laid the blame for Trump’s performance on the third old dude on the stage: Wallace. That even “respectable” conservative pundits, like Washington Post opinion writer Hugh Hewitt, had to scapegoat the Fox News anchor for Trump’s failures, particularly his refusal to condemn the far-right gang the Proud Boys, is proof of the ridiculous lengths they will go to placate the president.
Granted, Wallace didn’t do a great job. He gave himself low marks, telling The New York Times that the debate was a “terrible missed opportunity” in a Wednesday interview. “I never dreamt that it would go off the tracks the way it did,” he said.
“I guess I didn’t realize—and there’s no way you could, hindsight being 20/20—that this was going to be the president’s strategy, not just for the beginning of the debate, but the entire debate,” a shell-shocked Wallace continued, referring to the relentless chaos Trump unleashed.
Though Wallace did eventually gain a semblance of control, it was clear he had not prepared for an obvious possibility: that Trump would spend the entirety of the debate interrupting, haranguing, lying, and treating both Biden and Wallace with contempt. For some reason, Wallace anticipated a normal debate and was rattled when Trump started raving about Hunter Biden, Hillary Clinton, and China.
The narrative that has emerged on the right, however, is that Wallace had too much control. Wallace cast himself as a human shield for the frail, senile Joe Biden. The fact that Wallace interrupted Trump five times more than Biden was all the proof that was needed.
No one who watched any portion of the debate could conclude that Wallace had a firm grip on the tiller, or that he was steering the proceedings on behalf of the former vice president. Both Biden and Wallace could do little as Trump rained insane fury on them.
Also, when Wallace interrupted Trump, it was to try to stop him from interrupting Biden. This wasn’t proof of a secret pact or even, as many claimed, the Fox News anchor’s liberal bias. It was reactive, an ultimately futile attempt to have a proper debate. There’s also a lot of projection going on. When Ted Cruz complained to Hewitt that Wallace was “whiny and petulant” and determined to be the center of attention, he was really describing the president.
The most ridiculous criticism of Wallace from the right focused on him asking Trump to disavow the far-right gangs that support him. Here’s how it went down: “You have repeatedly criticized the vice president for not specifically calling out antifa and other left-wing extremist groups,” Wallace said. “But are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities, as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland?”
Trump said, “I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.”
But when it came to the Proud Boys, Trump did no such thing, instead saying, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem, this is a left-wing problem.”
Many on the right saw this exchange as more proof of Wallace’s bias. Why wasn’t Biden asked to condemn left-wing violence or antifa? There was one obvious retort: Biden has, repeatedly. Trump hasn’t, which is why the question was asked.
Hewitt, perhaps the most disingenuous pundit in the business, thinks that Wallace should have merely accepted Trump’s assertion that he was willing to condemn such groups—and that asking him to actually do so was out of bounds. But specifics are required with the president. He will readily condemn hate and white supremacy in the abstract, but he rarely will say anything bad about anyone who supports him, which is exactly what happened on Tuesday.
The whole point of journalism, of course, is to do exactly what Wallace did, testing abstract commitments with specifics. Hewitt has no interest in journalism, or in holding Trump accountable for his repeated failures to condemn violent right-wing groups. So it all somehow became Chris Wallace’s fault.