With more than 200,000 Americans dead from Covid-19, the economy in tatters, the west on fire, schools shuttered, police brutality against Black people still rampant, and millions of Americans grieving, scared, and unable to recognize their lives, the first of three presidential debates on Tuesday night came at a time of pain, desperation, and anxiety for the American people. The debate itself reflected absolutely none of this anxiety. It was a display of vulgarity and egotism that insulted the Americans it was purportedly meant to persuade.
It was a slap in the face to the Americans whose lives will be shaped by the actions of the next president
For more than 90 minutes, instead of substantive discussion of the multiple ongoing national emergencies that have warped their lives, viewers were shown three old white men – Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and Fox News’ Chris Wallace, nominally the moderator – interrupting, shouting at, and insulting one another. The coarseness, dishonestly, and grandstanding on display was a mockery of the dignity of the electoral process and a slap in the face to the Americans whose lives will be shaped by the actions of the next president.
Nearly all of the evening’s chaos can be blamed, of course, on President Donald Trump, who spent the evening lying and misrepresenting his own record, his opponent’s record, President Obama’s record, Hillary Clinton’s record, the records of several Senate and congressional Democrats, and the state of fires, crime, economic activity, coronavirus infection rates, and ballot distribution in various states and regions. He claimed, wrongly, that Joe Biden supports “socialist medicine”. He claimed, wrongly, that Joe Biden supports a Green New Deal. He claimed, wrongly, that Joe Biden opposes the police. And he claimed, wrongly, that Joe Biden had the power to limit the coronavirus outbreak during his time as a senator, vice-president, and presidential candidate.
Watch: US presidential debate: Trump v Biden - the seven defining moments
Trump made several allusions to conspiracy theories that are popular on the right wing internet but are largely incomprehensible to anyone not already immersed in that world, a rhetorical choice which signaled that Trump has either made a strategic decision to appeal to his base rather than to court undecided voters, or that he, like the most enthusiastic members of his base, spends much of his time online, Googling his name. In an exchange that was ugly even by the standards of the evening, Biden brought up the military service of his deceased son, Beau, and Trump interrupted to counter that Biden’s other son, Hunter, had had problems with drug addiction.
When he wasn’t lying, Trump was speaking over his time, whining at the moderator, and undermining the election. At one point, asked to disavow white supremacists, he instead spoke directly to the racist group known as the Proud Boys, telling them to “stand by”. At another point, he requested that his supporters deploy themselves to “watch” the voting in progress. It was hard not to interpret these comments as threats to incite his supporters to racist violence if the election does not go his way. And Trump seems convinced that it won’t. His closing remarks were dedicated to insisting that the election would be illegitimate if he lost. “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen,” he said. “This is a rigged election.”
Meanwhile Joe Biden challenged Trump, at times successfully, on the state of the country. He brought up the staggering number of coronavirus dead and emphasized the grief of those left behind who loved them. He brought up the Trump administration’s attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the Obama-era healthcare expansion that has extended insurance to millions during the pandemic. He brought up the failing economy, the dwindling jobs, and the tax cuts for the wealthiest while the majority of Americans face tightened belts and narrowing prospects. At times, too, he brought up the corruption and cruelty of Trump himself, calling out the president on his alleged tax dodges, as recently outlined in the New York Times, Trump’s racist dogwhistles and embrace of white supremacists, and his refusal to agree to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose.
Biden, who is leading in national polls by an uncommonly large margin and has an edge over Trump in many crucial swing states, was incentivized to make little news on the debate stage, and so had only one task for the night: to preserve his dignity while speaking to Donald Trump. It was a herculean task, and Biden met it with mixed success. Debating Donald Trump is like debating a chimpanzee: he is less likely to deliver a thoughtful and substantive answer than he is to throw his own feces at you.
It was difficult for the former vice-president to make clear and complete statements to the audience in the midst of Trump’s onslaughts, a reality he tried to confront head-on. “It’s hard to get anything in with this clown,” he said. Biden called Trump a clown several times and was frank in his exasperation and contempt, often looking directly at the camera and addressing his frustrations not to Trump or the moderator, but to the viewers at home. “Folks, do you have any idea what this clown is doing?” he asked the audience. At other times, he was dismissive of Trump. “Will you shut up, man?” he asked.
The approach was refreshing in that it did not concede to Trump any authority, decency, or respect – courtesies he has not earned and tends to use against those who demonstrate them. But watching Joe Biden address Trump with such deserved unseriousness, while a relief, also reminded me a bit too much of Hillary Clinton’s attempts to exude politeness and patience in her own debates against Trump during the 2016 contest. Biden treated Trump with the disdain and impatience that Trump deserves. But he was only able to be so forthrightly dismissive because he is a man.
What was the point of tonight’s debate? The circus of vanity, lies, and hostility certainly didn’t reveal anything new about the candidates, and it would be laughable to suggest that the exchange was productive to the democratic process. Though Tuesday’s debate was a new nadir of national embarrassment, televised presidential debates have been unhelpful for some time, always light on substance and heavy on spectacle. Perhaps it would be better to acknowledge these events for what they are: not real exchanges meant to inform the electorate, but reality television shows meant to drive up ratings for the major networks. Maybe this is why Donald Trump loves them so much. He doesn’t seem interested in fulfilling the duties of his office or in meeting the challenges of the nation, but he is very, very interested in being on TV.
Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist