A Debate Fit for 2020

We didn’t really learn anything new in this 90-minute shouting match, but there were some spectacularly cruel moments from our president.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump speaking during the first presidential debate at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic on September 29, 2020, both with their mouths open.
Joe Biden and Donald Trump during the first presidential debate in Cleveland on Tuesday. Jim Watson/Getty Images

Jordan Weissmann: Jim, we just watched a debate where two septugenarian candidates for the American presidency sniped at each other relentlessly for an hour and 30 minutes. The Grumpy Old Men GIFs have been flying all night on Twitter. Trump yet again declined an opportunity to condemn generic white supremacists and maybe gave a shout out to the Proud Boys. Jake Tapper just described the whole thing as a “hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.”

And yet, I’m weirdly feeling hopeful for our country after all that, because for most of the night, Trump seemed like a bellicose asshole, and Biden appeared generally together, on message, and empathetic, which is all he really needs to maintain his lead. Am I being too optimistic?

Jim Newell: I guess I’d take issue with the idea that they sniped relentlessly at each other for an hour and 30 minutes. Trump sniped relentlessly at Biden for that long, Chris Wallace sniped at Trump, and Biden was able to complete about 62 percent of each talking point he started. It made me think about the first Republican presidential debate Trump participated in in 2015, and how wildly funny it seemed at the time that he was being the way he was. Memories!

There was nothing funny about anything tonight, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Biden pulls out of the next two debates.

I didn’t think Biden was at his best. He seemed too caught up in remembering his prepared answers, or useless stats that he could just paraphrase. Trump trying to throw him off his train of thought was the right strategy. But Trump was absolutely out of his mind. We’ll see what polls say but my interpretation is: This fires up his base and worsens his problems among those who were drifting away from him specifically because he is a priceless asshole.

Does any Memorable Highlight Moment stand out for you, or is it all a blur of arguments about the time clock?

Weissmann: I, in turn, would take issue with the idea that there was nothing funny about tonight. I actually belly-laughed early on when Biden finally cracked and said, “Will you shut up, man?” And when I got done laughing, I realized that I had just experienced a very cathartic moment of Democratic wish fulfillment. A lot of liberals have been waiting for someone to talk back directly like that to Trump since he became president, which isn’t an uncommon feeling among members of an opposition party. (Remember Clint Eastwood and that Obama-empty chair?) And when Biden did it, he actually seemed to snap out a bit from his slow early start, where he was mostly fumbling his way quietly through talking points.

It didn’t help Trump that his attempts to be vicious in return often sounded way off-key, like when he basically called Biden an idiot (“there’s nothing smart about you”) and reminded everyone that the well-liked ex-VP attended a state school. He was trying to point out that Biden couldn’t remember its name properly, but it came off as classist, and kind of reinforced the whole Scranton vs. Park Avenue theme Biden’s been hitting on lately.

I also expect that Trump’s surreal failure to condemn white supremacists and militias, literally the easiest thing you can do in politics, is going to live on, just because it plays into the criticisms of him that already exist. What did you even make of that?

Newell: What did he say, “stand down, stand by,” in a very sarcastic, wink-wink voice? Of course he did that, it’s what he does. What made it chilling was the way he complemented that later in the debate by talking about the need for his poll watchers to challenge voters in Philadelphia, and elsewhere, and his refusal to urge his supporters to resist street violence when mail votes are going to be counted in the days after the election. It’s not just the failure to condemn, it’s the failure to condemn because strategically he’s planning on unrest during the counting of mail votes.

Weissmann: Right. Trump literally told the Proud Boys—an actual group of white racist hooligans—to “stand down and stand by.”

Newell: On the Trump-couldn’t-stop-interrupting front, I just heard Jake Tapper faulting Chris Wallace for losing control of the debate early and not taking the reins until too late. I always love one TV man sticking it to a rival. But I don’t really know what else Chris Wallace was supposed to do? I thought he was pretty forceful throughout the debate, in every conceivable way short of turning off a mic, that Trump needed to shut the fuck up. What did you make of Wallace’s inability to keep control? Was there anything else he could do?

Weissmann: He did what he could, and what he could do was spend the evening quarreling with the president. I think much of the right-wing media—though maybe not Fox, since Wallace works there—is going to accuse him of being biased, and perhaps try to preemptively bully the next moderator to go easy on Trump. And at points, he really did let his evident frustration with Trump slip, such as toward the end when he chuckled and agreed with Biden that it was hard to remember what Trump had even just said. To be honest, if I were a dedicated Republican, I would probably be pissed that the moderator spent most of the night coming to Biden’s aid. But then again, Trump could have kept quieter and been more effective, especially since Biden tends to trip on his words when he goes on for a full paragraph. For a guy who Republicans claim has lost a step, Biden was much better in their back-and-forth duels.

Do you think there was anything that happened during this debate that would have actually changed someone’s mind about a candidate, though?

Newell: It felt like, if you were still a swing voter at this point—all 70 of you out there—this just reinforces the cross-pressures. Say you like or are OK with the administration’s policies but also think he’s a total asshole who shouldn’t be in charge of anything. This reaffirmed all of that.

I thought, if Trump had a message with some juice tonight, it was—and I can’t remember the exact words, and it is actually impossible to transcribe this debate—look at all the shit that’s been thrown my way on a daily basis, but I just put it aside and built a strong economy and will rebuild one after COVID, too. Then, to name just one example, while Biden is talking about his son Beau dying of cancer, Trump interrupts to talk about cokehead Hunter. It’s just so … cruel. Eventually those remaining swing voters will have to make a choice, but I don’t see how tonight makes it easier. I don’t see why anyone already committed to a candidate would change based on tonight.

I mean, I’m looking at this first CBS instapoll after the debate about who won it and … Biden +7. Almost exactly the national polling margin.

Weissmann: I mean, Donald Trump fought with the press, praised himself because 2 million Americans haven’t die of the coronavirus, seemed to once again disagree with his own scientific team, called his opponent an idiot, declined to say a bad word about racists, and suggested he would only lose the election if it was rigged—all of which are pretty much par for the course. Biden basically looked at the camera and said, “Can you believe this clown?” (I’m paraphrasing, but only sort of.)

Newell: In that way, maybe Wallace didn’t fail, and the debate served its purpose: showing us what kind of people the two people running for president are.

Weissmann: And voters were unmoved. According to CNN’s poll, 60 percent of viewers think Biden won, but 57 percent said the debate didn’t make them more likely to vote for one or the other. It appears that most voters know what there is to know about these men.