The morning after the first presidential debate of the 2020 campaign, Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz recorded a special episode of the Political Gabfest. This transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
David Plotz: Now that we’ve had time to absorb the horror of a remarkably horrible 90 minutes in American political history, what was your reaction to last night’s debate?
Emily Bazelon: It was so unpleasant. The interrupting, the rank bullying from Donald Trump. Biden was in a really tough position. He held his ground, though there were moments when he missed opportunities for comebacks. The best moments of the debate were when Biden spoke directly to the audience and was able to get himself on message and back on track from the pandemonium. I also started out feeling frustrated with moderator Chris Wallace, but by the end I thought he’d done as good a job as you could do in that circumstance.
There was that staggering moment in which the president refused to condemn white supremacists and gave a call-out to the Proud Boys, a hate group. So that was pretty shocking.
Plotz: There were so many shocking moments, but the moment when he refused to even remotely wave at endorsing the legitimacy of the election was more shocking to me. It’s pretty clear that the re-election strategy is that there is no election, there is just victory, and we will delegitimize the democratic process to do it. He doesn’t appear to be campaigning for anything like “let me win this legitimately by winning electoral votes with a majority of votes in each of the states where I’m going to get electoral votes.”
John, what did you make of it?
John Dickerson: The president is behind in the polls and has been shedding voters from his coalition since 2016. I should think that the way he behaved shoved anybody who was trying to give him a second look away from him. I just kept thinking, he’s the president of the United States, and he wasn’t behaving in any way presidential. I get that he was trying to throw Biden off course, trying to get into his head. He was trying to fluster him and make Biden look unsettled. Biden mostly weathered it. When you’re a challenger, and you do that against Hillary Clinton, and she’s unpopular, it might work a little bit better, but he’s now the president of the United States, and Joe Biden is not unpopular in the way that Hillary Clinton was.
And, by the way, the stakes right now are extremely high. There are real and important things to be talking about in the country, and the fact that the president was more animated about some conspiracy theory about Hunter Biden than he was about any of the other issues … I guess he was also self-interestedly passionate about mail-in ballots. The fact that he showed no passion toward the obligations of his job and only toward the tactics of his strategy was a misalignment.
But, finally, on the point of white supremacy that Emily mentioned, there shouldn’t be an easier job for a president than to condemn white supremacy. William Howard Taft said, “Speak not so that you’re understood, but speak so that it’s impossible to misunderstand you.” Is there a person on the planet who has a faster trigger finger when he wants to condemn somebody—including teenagers, gold star mothers, the mayor of London after a terrorist attack—and yet when it comes to condemning white supremacists, he gets marbled-mouthed.
Plotz: Emily, do you agree with John that the interrupting was a conscious strategy to disorient Biden?
Bazelon: That’s what bullies do. They throw you off course. They overwhelm you if they can. And it felt like a pummeling from the playground. We’ve heard these stories about Trump in high school being a jerk to the people around him. It felt like he was channeling all of that id, and I have to say, watching that debate as a woman … I live with lovely men, but all the moments I’ve had in my life of men just being caustic and cruel and unfair and over-the-top in their aggression washed over me.
When Biden was trying to land some lines about Beau Biden serving in Iraq, and Trump went after him with such viciousness about Hunter Biden … These are his kids, and he has plenty of ammunition to lay out about the Trump kids if he wants. He has decided not to do that. I think that was wise. But that moment, which I understand the Republican Party is playing this morning as their victory clip, I had to hide under a blanket I was so upset about what felt to me like a totally underhanded, below-the-belt way of debating.
Dickerson: We’re in a position where everybody feels jagged about the way the world is going right now. As COVID is rising with the colder weather, people need to be taken in the opposite direction, and Trump came with a sawtooth.
Bazelon: Do you remember how President Obama kind of messed up the first debate with Mitt Romney? I was thinking that maybe being president does not prepare you very well to debate. Not just because you don’t have enough time to read all the books, but the environment that you’re in is one that’s affirming almost all the time, and debating is about actually addressing your own weaknesses, and thinking from other points of view. Trump was so unable to do that.
Plotz: He’s literally unable to do that. An element of the narcissistic personality is the inability to do that. Whatever preparation Biden did about the substance of the debate was mostly lost because it was all overwhelmed by the chaos and unpleasantness that Trump introduced by refusing to hold a debate.
Dickerson: Trump didn’t prepare too much even when he was a candidate in 2016.. But in a sense, he’s been preparing his whole life for the debate that he carried out last night. That strategy is very consistent with the bullying that’s been described repeatedly in his life. His strategy is to throw a grenade in the room, let it explode, and then run in and try to command the chaos. That’s exactly what he was doing last night.
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