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America’s Next Top Town Halls Are No Way to Pick a President

Two ratings-hungry news networks are determined to rescue a farce from the tragedy of a lost presidential debate.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden during the first presidential debate
Jim Watson/Getty Images; Saul Loeb/Getty Images

One of the few lessons that could be drawn from the first debate between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden, which occurred approximately 60 years ago, was that the traditional head-to-head format quickly becomes farcical if one of the heads won’t shut their trap. It’s hardly unusual for warring candidates to disrespect the rules and interrupt one another, but Trump took that to zany new levels in his first tilt with Biden and made it essentially impossible for anything resembling a “debate” to occur. It was therefore a relief to learn that Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis and subsequent refusal to learn how to use Zoom would prevent the next debate from happening. But such respites have been typically short-lived in this election cycle and, according to today’s news, the two candidates will each participate in dueling town hall events—with Trump on NBC and Biden on ABC, on Thursday night, at the same time.

The process that led to this pick-your-poison moment carries the strong scent of superfluousness. After all, there was very little left unsaid, unaired, or unlearned about the two candidates after the first debate; even those resolutely—and bafflingly—undecided voters have scant morsels to chew on at this point if they’re still in need of the one big thing that will settle their raging internal debate. If you are one of those special brains who still can’t pick between The Worst Man Ever and Not The Worst Man Ever, you could at least learn from the first debate that The Worst Man Ever is unhinged. (To be this person, you would have to have missed the many clues on this point that have accumulated over the years.)

Without the frisson of face-to-face confrontation, what’s the point of this town-hall showdown? That Biden signed up to do a town hall is reflective of the fact that Trump, in opting out of the debate, left him no other choice than to be available on that day for some exercise in journalistic grilling. All things being equal, Biden would have done the virtual debate that Trump necessitated by getting infected with a deadly disease. Trump’s subsequent decision to offer himself up for a competing town hall event could have been forestalled if he’d just agreed to get on a camera in a separate room with Biden for a virtual debate. As it stands, we ended up in separate rooms on separate cameras anyway.

It’s very possible that at the end of the town halls we’ll have learned more about the media than we’ll have fresh material to evaluate the candidates. Perhaps the questions asked by voters at the town hall events will be better than those asked by either Chris Wallace or Susan Page, who moderated the slightly less unhinged vice presidential debate. Of course, even these town hall questions will be screened and picked by the network, so there’s nothing that guarantees it will compare well to the prior debates. It is certainly hard, if not impossible, for these voter-questioners to badger the candidates into actually answering their questions, in the way one often wishes a debate moderator would, rather than let moments pass and interrogations go unanswered. In practice, it’s not uncommon for members of the media to redirect a voter’s inquiry at a town hall, or bigfoot them by pushing follow-up questions in a different, unintended direction. If ABC News wants to spend two hours asking Joe Biden if he’d pack the Supreme Court in a million different ways, it’ll find a way to do it, regardless of whether there’s authentic public interest in the inquiry.

The salient point is that come Friday morning, what transpired the night before isn’t going to make much difference in the grand scheme of things. Joe Biden and Donald Trump will have stood in separate rooms, in separate states, uttering familiar talking points. But presidential debates exist for the specific purpose of allowing viewers to gauge the candidates’ ability to cope with each others’ arguments, ostensibly as a small-bore test of their overall presidential fitness—a means to answer that age-old question, “If Joe Biden can’t cope with Donald Trump’s tax plan then how will he handle INSERT NAME OF FOREIGN ADVERSARY?” The question of presidential mettle-testing has been answered before the town halls air: Trump chickened out, and Biden will benefit by avoiding a potentially more grueling test.

There is scant meaning to be extracted, even in this. But the simple fact of the matter is we’ll get much less out of the dueling town halls. Remember, viewers will have to choose one form of torture over the other. Unless you want to set up the split-screen rig from Hell, there will be no real-time comparisons to be had. In all likelihood, viewers will sort themselves along partisan lines. Biden supporters will watch Biden, and Trump supporters will watch Trump. Nobody will learn, and no one will hug.

But this format does set up a showdown that Trump can really understand: Who will get better ratings? It’ll be grist for at least one frenetic Trump tweet on Friday morning—unless of course he gets asked some hard questions, in which case his twilight tweet-fest will be filled with familiar grousings about media bias. But this gets to the heart of why these events are actually going to happen: They are television shows, put on by television executives who love ratings even more than Trump. We should dispense with the pretense that any of these televised tilt-a-whirls are remotely useful to the exercise of democracy and just push everything to its logical conclusion: Have our presidential candidate try to navigate the American Ninja Warrior course, or prepare a Chopped meal, or woo a coven of bachelorettes. We wouldn’t learn anything about the people who want to run the free world, but the ad revenue would be absolutely boffo.