Donald Trump and Joe Biden met for their first presidential debate on Tuesday night. If you didn’t watch it, you could try to catch up by reading a transcript, but you’d be no more enlightened about what transpired at the end than you were at the beginning. The two hours were by turns unintelligible, crazy-making, and mind-numbingly dull. When the two candidates weren’t talking over each other and the moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, they were disagreeing on basic facts or repeating things they’ve already said. Trump spent two hours lying, interrupting, being racist, and making snide asides. No surprises there.
The American public gained nothing from this degrading spectacle, which resembled a trashy shock-jock program more than a debate about policy and public service. There is no way to deliver anything remotely approaching an edifying debate with an incumbent like this. The remaining debates should be canceled.
Some may see value in a president used to being surrounded by sycophants being challenged for once. It’s true that Wallace occasionally corrected Trump’s lies and Biden repeatedly called him a liar. Wallace asked Trump, as forcefully as he could, to stick to the debate rules and stop yelling over Biden. Nevertheless, he persisted. The result was a cacophony of misinformation and men screaming at one another. I suppose that’s a fitting vibe for a Fox-hosted debate, but it’s awfully hard to absorb any of what’s being said with one’s vision clouded by adrenaline and a racing pulse throbbing in one’s ears.
Luckily, with the exception of a few uninterrupted moments of Biden explaining his climate plan, there was almost nothing of substance to glean from the event. There were virtually no agreed-upon facts from which to build policy solutions: Biden said violent crime has increased during the Trump administration; Trump said it’s gone down. Trump said nearly every governor has praised his COVID-19 response; Biden said they haven’t. Every time Biden spoke, Trump interjected with something insulting. Every time Trump spoke, Biden was forced to mutter, over and over again, “That’s not true.” When Biden attempted to explain his health care plan, Trump lured him off track, leading Biden to waste his time bragging about beating Bernie Sanders “by a lot.” People who actually care about the matter of governing a country learned little about how each candidate would do so. The debate ran on empty posturing. It was all for show.
There is no reason to expect a better result from the next two debates. No matter how stringent the rules or vigorous the moderators, these contests will always take place on the terms of the worst person on the stage. Trump’s verbal abuse steered the debate away from American lives and toward personal accusations. His aggressive machismo triggered Biden’s, leading the former vice president to repeatedly refer to Trump as “man,” as in “Will you shut up, man?” and “Keep yapping, man”—a resurrection of language from male-only spaces that feels like a solid step back on the road to progress in American politics.
The malicious stupidity of the Trump administration has poisoned the meat of these debates, too. Because the president has refused to publicly accept the basic science of the novel coronavirus, precious minutes were wasted debating the utility of face masks. Even worse, the president’s taunting tenor and unwillingness to follow the most basic rules of the game demeaned everyone onstage, giving them all the gravity of bickering middle-schoolers. At the midpoint of the debate, Wallace and Trump spent several seconds arguing over whether Trump or Biden was interrupting the most. I wish I were joking.
At a moment when this country is teetering on the precipice of a total breakdown, with the economy in tatters, hundreds of thousands dead and dying from a disease the government has barely tried to contain, and democracy in mortal danger, Trump’s pettiness is a gratuitous slap in the face when we’re already getting beat up on the regular. This debate offered free airtime for Trump to spew racist digs (he again called the coronavirus the “China plague”), foment distrust in voting systems (“They cheat,” he said of … some people?), and tell lies about what is happening in America today. Even if viewers don’t quite trust him, the lengthy battery of disagreements over matters of established fact may well leave them feeling exhausted, unsure of whether anyone knows the truth, or whether the truth even exists.
If there is someone out there who hasn’t heard enough about these two candidates yet, who isn’t quite sure whether the country would be best served by the current president ruling for another four years or Biden taking the wheel, I don’t know her. Neither do the pollsters, apparently. A CBS News survey that asked viewers which candidate won the debate found 48 percent on Biden’s side and 41 percent on Trump’s—a seven-point split, same as the national polling average before the debate. Approximately 40 percent of the American population cannot be dissuaded from supporting a racist charlatan who’s been credibly accused of sexual assault by more than a dozen women and is responsible for tens of thousands of American deaths. It has already been established, on every possible level, what a terrible president and person we’ve vested with the world’s most powerful position, and Tuesday night’s debate, in which Trump merely repeated the same dog whistles and lies he’s yelled hundreds of times before, added no new information to that pile.
Tonight, Trump was no more or less abusive, no more or less truthful, and no more or less interested in governing than he was in the debates four years ago. The only difference is that now, we’re viewing the calamity from inside Donald Trump’s America, which we can see with our own eyes. What more is there to know?
Correction, Sept. 29, 2020: The caption on this photo originally misidentified Chris Wallace as Chris Matthews.