You’ve already heard this countless times by now, but it bears repeating: Tuesday’s Presidential debate was one of the most depressing, useless exercises in the history of politics. It was a tedious, borderline incomprehensible 90 minutes, a pathetic forum that will only be remembered only for the sheer disillusionment it will cause.
It was yet another signifier of the death of American political and media institutions, a zombified format of two-minute answers and “open-discussion time” completely unsuited for the reality of this race. Trump, as he does, thoroughly bulldozed the road and drove the bus straight off the overpass, immediately picking fights with moderator Chris Wallace and constantly interrupting Democratic nominee Joe Biden. It felt like the President was a heckler in the crowd at moments, constantly attempting to drag Biden’s answers down into a swamp of conspiracy theories and Democratic inner-party divides. Hunter Biden, anti-fa, and a cabal of left-wing agitators were among the enemies he laid at Biden’s gate. The tirades felt incomprehensible. The pundit in me assumed that Trump’s rants would be off-putting and bizarre to low-information voters. But then I remembered the sophisticated right-wing media ecosystem that exists to give oxygen to these ravings, and I began to see a radicalizing on-ramp for someone casually following Trump’s accusations.
No matter the efficiency of the propaganda complex that surrounds Trump, it was a debate performance that often felt strained. Annoy and insult is the strategy that, in hindsight, may have driven Trump to success in the 2016 debates. But now, four years later and the country in the midst of multiple horrific crises, Trump The Incumbent and Trump The Troll seem impossible to reconcile. And yet, days later, the media narrative is thoroughly dominated by Trump’s spectacle. A number of undecided voters in focus groups conducted following the debate now say they plan not to vote, something of a glimmer of hope for an incumbent whose path to reelection runs on exhausting the electorate into submission.
It’s easy to feel sympathy for Joe Biden, a dignified creature of Washington who assuredly never expected to debate a man like Trump. There’s only so much one person can do to break through when dealing with an opponent who shouts and interrupts constantly, an opponent who is clearly there only to goad you into having a meltdown. And yet it was hard not to miss the passion and preparation that Hillary Clinton brought to her spars with Trump four years earlier. Clinton’s “Trumped-up trickle-down economics” line is a ridiculous phrase that has lived cartoonishly in my mind for the past 1,460 days, but at least it’s a prepared and focused line of attack. All too often, Biden felt like he was drowning in the Trump tsunami, grasping desperately among the President’s bountiful failures and his own prepared insults, hoping desperately for something that sticks. Biden completely failed at defining a policy agenda, awkwardly and incoherently explaining his own programs while allowing Trump’s farcical descriptions of his record to go unchallenged. He spent most of the policy debate on the defensive, attempting to run away from policies like the Green New Deal and Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal. And even through the lens of gladiatorial combat, it’s notable how little Biden’s criticism of Trump landed. A Presidential candidate calling the incumbent “the worst President in history” on the debate stage should’ve been a big moment; instead, it was just another flare-up in a long night of conflict.
Everything just felt off. The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates presented the debate in a stodgy format nearly begging to be disrupted. Biden and Trump stood across each other at lecturns, with Wallace sitting in front of them against a sparsely lit audience. It was a dignified production completely unprepared for the chaos that should’ve been expected.
Wallace felt like a nonentity for much of the debate, off to the side and thoroughly overshadowed by the unhinged President. His attempts at regaining control of the debate were comically inept, asking the President “please” repeatedly and scolding both candidates about the rules. This kind of rule-keeping has been somewhat effective in the past at reigning in candidates worried about the embarrassment of negative press coverage. But Trump’s shamelessness and complete disinterest in institutional restraint are obvious by now, and Wallace was surprisingly unprepared for how far Trump was willing to go to derail his questioning. By the end, Wallace seemed at peace with the failure of the night, acknowledging that Trump will lead his questions toward his own chosen topics and laughing with Biden as the candidate attempted to parse Trump’s litany of lies.
Yet the most depressing theme of the night stemmed from the substance of Wallace’s questions. The night was loosely organized around a series of topics. At a time of renewed attention towards police murder of Black Americans, Wallace chose to tie the issue of racism with fear-mongering around violent protests. This framing allowed Trump to turn any substantive questions about race into yet another screed against Antifa and far-left looters. As the COVID pandemic decimates Black families and businesses—to say nothing of the recent spree of police violence—the framing felt painfully irresponsible. Wallace’s short climate section was similarly toothless; Trump was pressed on his complete denial of climate change while Biden was needled equally as intensely on the cost of his obsessively-economically-sound climate plan, a proposal that some climate experts say is inadequate to combat the existential crisis facing us in the coming decades. It was yet another reminder that the political discourse in this country is woefully broken, and completely incapable of articulating or meeting the pressing challenges we face.
The moment getting the most media play came towards the end of the debate, when Trump pointedly refused to accept the results of the election if he did not win. His wildly incorrect claims about the veracity of mail-in voting and the need to declare a winner on election night all seem like ground-setting for an attempt to deny the final results of the election, a dark and unprecedented path in American governance made all the more chilling by his insinuation that his supporters should take to the streets if he loses. Standing besides this looming calamity, Biden responded by saying he was sure both candidates would accept the results, before entering into a winding explanation of the mechanics of mail in voting.
The rising specter of violent fascism, and an opposition promising an incoherent return to a normalcy that seems increasingly impossible regardless of who ultimately wins. This is the defining conflict of the 2020 campaign; a heated battle for the country’s basic democratic norms set against the backdrop of looming and unaddressed horrors.