Last night’s despicable mud-wrestling, schoolyard bullying, name-calling event was neither Presidential nor a debate. Thank you, Donald. The President who violates all norms of behavior, tramples science and facts, lies about virtually everything, foments divisiveness, incites violence, savages all who differ with him, broke the rules of the event to which his campaign had agreed. Few, if any, were surprised when decorum went out the window. The big loser was the American electorate.
Vice President Joe Biden, for whom the bar had been set very low by the President himself, acquitted himself rather well, standing up to Trump, not wilting under the relentless 90-minute assault, not making any obvious gaffes or devolving into much of the word salad that has sometimes weakened his previous debate performances. Whenever moderator Chris Wallace could exert control over Trump’s unremitting interruptions, Biden scored points on COVID-19, the Affordable Care Act, racial inequities and more. Most impressive was Biden’s ability to turn to the camera and speak directly to the American people.
If anyone learned anything from the spectacle, it was that a vote for Donald Trump is a vote for four more years of chaos. But the few voters who remain undecided certainly didn’t get much help.
As he has for the last four years, Donald Trump scored by playing to his base and sticking it to the rest of us. His goal was to whip up his followers, separate moderate Biden from the left flank of his party, and depress turnout. To many Trump zealots, and to Trump himself, he achieved his objectives for the evening, but more sober-minded Trump supporters believe he blew an opportunity. For his part, the Vice President scored by showing his humanity, his authentic concerns about everyday people, his empathy and intent to heal the divisions in our country.
Even after becoming inured to typical Trump outrages, two statements still had the power to shock. First, his refusal to disavow white supremacists and far-right militia groups. The veiled threat in his directive to the neo-fascist Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by,” was chilling. (Proud Boys celebrated the President’s comment online.) Second, Trump’s refusal to urge his followers to non-violence in the days after the election. By urging supporters to go in droves into the polling places to oversee the process, he unsubtly invited intimidating interference if not outright violence. Naturally he continued his baseless claims of widespread fraud in mail-in balloting, implying that the election won’t be over until new Supreme Court justice Amy Coney Barrett affirms his victory.
I wish Biden had done better shaping a response to Trump’s federal income tax shortcomings and business failures (Trump’s interruptions apparently threw him off), and he could have made a better case that his COVID-19 plan would help open the economy the right way. But last night’s debacle was not about policy. It was about style and character. That’s why I cringed when Biden got drawn into the schoolyard scrapping, calling Trump a clown, or retorting, “Will you shut up, man; this is so unpresidential.” By and large though, he kept it together, turning in a good, if not great performance. But, please spare me any false equivalencies; Trump brought the kerosene and lit the match.
Going forward, decorum could be helped by giving the moderator the power to turn off the microphone of a candidate who breaks the rule regarding interruptions. The non-profit Commission on Presidential Debates, which has run these events since the late 1980’s, should be pressured to make that change before the two nominees share the stage again.
The lack of civility last night was grotesque and makes us a laughingstock around the world and plays into the Russian disinformation agenda. The chaos is yet another reminder (as if we needed it) that the stakes on November 3 could not be higher.