The first debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden did not get good reviews. ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos called it the worst debate he’d ever seen. Others openly questioned whether we should bother having any more debates this cycle, given how bad this one was. “The American people lost. That was horrific,” Jake Tapper said on CNN. “We’re on cable, so I can say this: That was a shitshow,” agreed Dana Bash.
A shitshow it certainly was! The first presidential debate of the 2020 general election was an exhausting and dispiriting affair. For 90 minutes, Trump kept on interrupting and belittling Biden and moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News. When he wasn’t heckling the other two men onstage, he was working hard to lock up the ignorant-maniac vote. He refused to condemn white supremacy. He spouted discredited conspiracy theories. He took credit for things he didn’t do and lied about things he did. He literally encouraged his supporters to go to the polls to keep tabs on election fraud. The president conclusively exposed who he really is to a national audience—and while I get why one might not want to witness two more of these, that’s why this one was a good debate.
For almost four years, Donald Trump has successfully avoided dissenting opinion, admitting little outside light into his cloister of morons. He has met the media on his own terms, in venues where he filibusters over hard questions and elicits softballs from friendly reporters. He has cultivated the credulous lickspittles of Fox News’ opinion division and used them as conduits for his inaccurate, self-serving messages. But since becoming president, he has not once been challenged for an extended period by a hostile opponent and a competent moderator. And in the face of both of those things, he melted down.
Moderator Chris Wallace did superhuman work trying to keep Trump on task and honest. Though he didn’t succeed at either of those things, he never stopped trying, and for that, he deserves applause and sympathy. At one point, he all but threw up his hands and yelled at Trump for not respecting the ground rules of the debate:
Wallace (to Trump): I think the country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions. I’m appealing to you, sir, to do that.
Trump: And him, too.
Wallace: Well, frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting than he has.
Trump: That’s all right. But he does plenty.
Wallace: No, less than you have.
Trump’s loopiest supporters will cite this exchange as evidence that Wallace was in the tank for Biden. Everyone else who watched it will remember it as evidence that Trump is a real jerk.
I confess that I wasn’t expecting much from Wallace—whose work I generally respect and admire—as we went into the debate. On Tuesday afternoon, I rewatched the debate he moderated in 2016, between Trump and Hillary Clinton. He didn’t do a great job. Though he was ready with pointed questions for both Trump and Clinton, he was consistently sidetracked by the unruly Trump, who spent the entire debate steamrolling both Wallace and Clinton—and Wallace let him do it.
The Fox News Sunday host came better prepared for Trump’s tactics this year. Before the debate, Wallace had said that he didn’t see it as his job to be a fact-checker. And he didn’t do much fact-checking in the “well, actually” sense. Instead, Wallace put the fact checks in the premises of his questions. “You have not come up with a comprehensive plan to repeal and replace Obamacare. So my question, sir, is what is the Trump health care plan?” Wallace asked early. “You have repeatedly contradicted and been at odds with some of your top scientists in your own government,” he said during the COVID-19 section of the debate. “What is radical about racial-sensitivity training, sir?” Wallace asked at one point after Trump went off on a rant on that topic.
Wallace wasn’t always able to pin Trump down, but he kept trying. “Sir, I’m asking you a specific question. No, Mr. President, I’m asking you a question. Will you tell us how much you paid in federal income tax in 2016 and 2017?” he pressed at one point. (“Millions of dollars,” Trump insisted, contradicting the New York Times’ reporting that it was just $750.) Later, Wallace countered Trump’s insistence that this summer’s rising crime rates are exclusive to Democratic-run cities by noting that “there have been equivalent spikes in Republican-led cities, like Tulsa. Is this actually a partisan issue?” In these moments, with these sorts of questions and observations, Wallace offered clarity and necessary context to viewers.
Trump’s inability to offer coherent answers to these simple questions was evident, and to me, at least, it effectively showcased the extent to which Trump has absolutely nothing substantive to say. He covers his shallowness with jeers and bombast, and usually he is able to get away with it, often because the people with whom he’s speaking ultimately decide that pushing back isn’t worth the hassle. But both Wallace and Biden pushed back, and kept pushing back, and the back-and-forth said something meaningful about the choice voters are facing in November. Sure, it was a nightmare to watch, but it still said something indelible about who the president actually is.
But I already knew who the president was, you say? Well, this debate wasn’t for you. This debate was for the 17 people who went into it unsure about these Trump and Biden fellows—about who they are and what they stand for. Tuesday night certainly clarified that question, and it also laid bare the choice that these voters are facing in November. On one hand, you’ve got chaos, cynicism, and calumny. On the other hand, you’ve got Joe Biden, who sometimes stutters. The difference is clear now. Every swing voter can see it.
Most presidential debates are horrible. It’s in their DNA. The rapid-fire format is more like a game show than anything else, and candidates are apt to revert to stump speeches and canned applause lines. That happened on Tuesday night, too, but in a way that was revealing instead of obfuscatory. I’m sorry, cable news pundits lamenting Tuesday’s night’s “disgrace”: More debates like this one, please!