Anyone who was looking forward to tonight’s debate hoping for greater clarity on the issues surely walked away disappointed. But anyone watching to better understand the contrast in character between the two men saw all they needed to see. Donald Trump behaved during the first presidential debate the same way he has behaved throughout his business and political career: running roughshod over norms, standards, morality, and any sense of decency. And the American people noticed: a CNN post-debate poll showed Biden winning 60% to 28%, while a CBS/YouGov poll showed Biden winning by a smaller 7-point margin, but with significantly worse internals for Trump.
After agreeing to the debate format giving each candidate two minutes to speak on each question, Trump tried to bully, bluster, and interrupt at every moment, rarely giving Biden a chance to finish a sentence. Debate moderator Chris Wallace seemed stunned and incapable of handling the situation, waiting until the debate was halfway gone before telling Trump, who behaved like a toddler, to observe the rules. Wallace became increasingly exasperated as the night continued. Trump’s behavior was so abominable that much of the debate wasn’t between Biden and Trump, but between Trump and Wallace, as Wallace tried without success to shame Trump into observing any sense of adult behavior.
Trump’s hardcore supporters will no doubt be ecstatic, as they have thrilled to similar behavior over the course of his presidency. But Trump is currently well behind in the polls: he needs to do more than tickle the worst instincts of his base. He needs to win over the moderate and undecided voters he has lost, and there is no evidence he came close to accomplishing the task.
There wasn’t much of substance to report from the debacle, but a few moments stood out:
1) Trump not only refused to condemn white supremacist violence, he actively encouraged racist extremists. When Wallace directly asked Trump if he would condemn the actions of white supremacists and racist agitators in response to police violence protests, Trump refused to do so. Trump then mentioned the racist terrorist group The Proud Boys by name, refused to denounce them, and asked them to “stand back and stand by.” The Proud Boys are celebrating in response. When Biden mentioned that Trump’s own FBI considered white supremacist groups by far the biggest threat in the United States, Trump insisted that his own FBI was wrong. There are few words to express how disgusting, appalling, and unacceptable this is from any candidate for any office anywhere, much less the sitting President of the United States.
2) Trump brazenly insisted that the New York Times story on his taxes was made up, and falsely claimed that he paid millions of dollars in taxes. It went almost unnoticed in the general hubbub, but this was an incredibly dangerous moment for the president. The Times can presumably prove that Trump’s taxes are in fact his taxes; the New York Attorney General has more Trump organization taxes as well. And the Times will have even more stories coming out soon. It will be extremely difficult for Trump to try to stonewall this story through the election, and he laid down a marker tonight in front of an enormous audience from which it will be very difficult to retreat.
3) Trump lied with reckless abandon about mail-in voting and encouraged his supporters to intimidate people at the polls. Americans want to have confidence in our election system, and tens of millions of Americans have voted by mail for years. During the campaign’s final moments, Trump went off on an unhinged litany of lies about mail-in voting, in an attempt to delegitimize the entire election process. Post-debate focus groups on television suggested that it did not go over well. But Trump also encouraged “his people” to illegally go to polling places to intimidate voters all across America, and complained that state elections officials were not allowing them to do so. America will be very lucky if Trump’s exhortations to the worst elements of his base do not result in election-related violence.
4) Trump’s stomping on Biden’s moment of grief over his son Beau was an appalling act of sociopathy and gave Biden an opportunity for a striking moment of empathy. Time and again, Trump tried to turn the conversation to Hunter Biden, making a series of exaggerated or false claims about Biden’s son. Turning to Trump’s reported statements disparaging those in military service, the former Vice President began speaking from his heart about his deceased son, Beau. Trump interrupted and stomped on his moment by yelling again about Hunter’s history of drug use, refusing to offer even the barest shred of sympathy for the Biden family’s tragedy. Joe Biden then turned to the camera and said that his son Hunter had suffered from drug addiction–much like millions of people in the opioid-ravaged areas of America that Trump pretends to champion. Trump’s behavior was monstrous, unworthy of even a basic human being in society much less a sitting president. Biden’s was deeply sympathetic.
5) Biden stayed mostly above the fray, except to dismiss Trump at his most outrageous. For the most part, Biden simply smiled and shook his head as Trump played the fool. But perhaps the most memorable moment came when Biden said, “Will you shut up, man?” Many seized on this as a mistake in which Biden lost his cool. But Biden may have known something his critics didn’t. There are many voters who may prefer conservative policies overall, but cannot stand Trump’s demeanor, tweets, and bullying. They would like him, in layman’s terms, to just shut up already. Biden has many flaws as a candidate, but his greatest strength is connecting with both white and non-white working-class voters, speaking in plain language unused by most politicians. It’s part of why his “gaffes” don’t sink him: they make Biden all the more charming. And while it may have offended some for Biden to “come down” to Trump’s level, it was almost certainly refreshing to many–and not just liberal clap-back celebrants–who yearned to see someone say that to Trump to his face. There’s an innate joy for most people in seeing someone stand up to a bully with dignity, and Biden did just that.
6) Trump appears to be so desperate that he spent a large amount of time trying to split Biden from the left. Time and again, Trump tried to pretend that Biden was a Fox News caricature of Bernie Sanders. Then, when Biden insisted that he be judged on his own record and plans, Trump insisted that he had “lost the left.” Trump advisor Kelly-Anne Conway continued the strategy after the debate, only for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to deliver a humiliating rejoinder in solidarity with Biden. While a few leftists on Twitter were foolishly convinced that Trump was dominating the debate–thus betraying both a lack of familiarity with the concerns of undecided voters and their own strange fetish for authoritarian personalities–the vast majority of the actual American left, including the vast majority of Democratic socialists and Green New Deal progressives, know that Trump’s pratfall in the debate negated his trolling. That Trump would even attempt it, much less spend so much time doing so, is a mark of his own campaign’s desperation.
It is hard to know where we go from here. The conventional wisdom going into the debate was that it wouldn’t likely change much, with very few undecided voters left. That conventional wisdom likely remains correct.
But it’s also true that it was Trump who needed a big win tonight. He is far behind in most polling, including in the tipping-point swing states. The debates are one of the last opportunities to change the conversation, and it’s clear that he not only failed to accomplish the task: he damaged his already precarious position. Even Fox News’ commentators chose to spend most of their time excoriating their own colleague Wallace than pretending that Trump has performed well. Trump himself tweeted an image implying that he had to debate both Biden and Wallace–the self-pitying whine of a loser who knows he lost, and all the more pathetic from a man who attempted to bully his opponent off the stage and is attempting to bully his opponent’s voters out of participating in the election.
It’s also a challenge for future debates. It’s impossible to hold a legitimate debate if one of the debaters refuses to follow any of the rules. The moderators of the next debates will need to be much more forceful than Wallace; they may even need to consider cutting the microphones of the candidates to prevent interruptions. But it’s also true that traditionally, the second and third debates have mattered far less to the eventual result than the first.
If this was Trump’s last gasp at trying to actually win the election without cheating, it was a perfect capstone to his presidency: four years of ugly, bigoted, bullying, sociopathic tantrums ending in a final meltdown on the biggest stage in politics.