What the Debate’s Mute Button Made Clear

Donald Trump and Joe Biden stand at their lecterns on the debate stage.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden at the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on Thursday. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Christina Cauterucci: OK, Jordan. We just finished watching the second (and, praise be, the final) presidential debate. There was a mute button this time, which was supposed to help prevent a total melee and all the cross-yelling of the first debate. How do you think it all went?

Jordan Weissmann: To be honest, I was a little bored and disappointed, which is one of the best signs that Kristen Welker actually kept order as a moderator.

I kind of thought this might be the night Donald Trump went full supernova, just exploding as his campaign died out. But instead, I think the strictness of the format—and, presumably, his awareness of the mute button—actually saved him from himself. That, of course, is not to say he put in a good performance. Just that it wasn’t the sort of historic meltdown I was anticipating.

Christina: It seemed like someone had given him a strict talking-to since the last debate and told him he’d come off like a total jerk. He even complimented Welker—condescendingly, annoyingly, but still—on a few occasions.

So the general vibes were chiller, but Trump still relied on personal attacks on Biden to win cheap points, even mocking him in a kind of singsong-y voice. He accused Biden of not actually being from Pennsylvania ( … yes, he is?) and said, “He has this thing about living in a basement” (because the former vice president takes proper coronavirus precautions?)—things that seem like they’d make his base feel warm and fuzzy, but did not actually make sense to anyone else.

And yet, I can see people out there who just need to be reassured that Trump can complete a sentence being reassured by this!

Jordan: Possibly. But I’m not sure that’s the bar he actually has to clear. Going into tonight, Trump needed to do two things. First, he had to not be a complete nut onstage, which he sort of accomplished. But he also needed to give voters some reassurance that he’s capable of dealing with the coronavirus crisis, which is the single issue defining this whole campaign. He didn’t say anything particularly new there. Instead, he teed up a zinger for Joe Biden by saying, “We’re learning to live with it,” to which Biden said, “We’re learning to die with it.”

I mean, are you any more afraid of Donald Trump winning reelection after watching his performance tonight? I know I’m not.

Christina: I am. I keep thinking about the polls in swing states—the margins of error and the undecideds. And I think a lot of those people might be Trump supporters who just need to reconvince themselves that Trump is something close to a functioning human being. Biden’s COVID zinger was good, and correct, and he had a nice comeback prepared for when Trump started ragging on blue-state governors, as he always does. It was a take on Obama’s blue-state-red-state-United-States thing, where he promised to lead for all Americans, not just the ones who supported him. As you’ve pointed out, that’s a promise with real consequences.

The part of the debate that Trump did the worst on, in my opinion, was on immigration. Kudos to Welker for bringing up the 545 migrant children who were stolen from their parents, and whose parents can no longer be found. I don’t think Trump’s claim that the kidnapped kids “are so well taken care of” was the win he thinks it was. How do you think Biden did in that bit?

Jordan: I think Biden did a good job being Joe Biden, as he did for most of the debate. He sounded empathetic while expressing revulsion at the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrant families and added some policy meat by promising an immigration reform bill in his first 100 days.

But again, I just don’t think tonight was about Biden. It was about Trump, and whether he could present himself as a man plausibly capable of cleaning up the world-historical disaster his administration has overseen. And I just don’t think he did that, in part because, like always, he was too busy half-cogently rehashing plot points of conspiracy theories about Hunter Biden and Burisma.

I mean, I’m a far-too-online, Twitter-poisoned human being, and I even find it confusing when Trump gets deep into Fox News lore. And that’s what he spent much of the night doing. I can’t imagine that moved the ball much for him.

Christina: I keep forgetting, and having to remind myself, how insane it is that Trump has been president for four years, and instead of being able to list a slew of accomplishments or at least plot out a definitive path forward with some kind of plan, he spends his time asking Joe Biden why he didn’t do everything currently in his plans when he was vice president.

Jordan: He literally said: “When I become president.”

Christina: At least when he ran in 2016, he could say some deranged things about building a wall on the border, and it sounded new and like a real plan. This time around, the most interesting promiselike thing Trump made was when he compared himself to Abraham Lincoln, then got confused when Biden repeated it back to him.

Jordan: I’m actually racking my brain for a single policy promise Trump made tonight, and all I’m coming up with is … maybe coming up with a health care plan if Obamacare gets struck down?

Christina: That was it! So yes, by any logical rubric, Trump failed this debate. And maybe I’m still stress-vomiting over flashbacks from 2016, when it seemed equally improbable that we would elect such a profoundly inept and cruel and uninterested-in-presidenting president, and then we did. He’s been talking like this and governing like this for four years, and almost half the country still likes him! Somebody must see something in this shtick.

Jordan: At least 40 percent of America sees something in this shtick. The problem is that senior citizens in Florida stopped finding it amusing when their friends started dying of a plague.

Christina: When Biden referred to “gymnasiums” reopening, I thought of those seniors, because I don’t know anyone else who still uses that term. He knows his audience.

Jordan: Here’s the thing: It’s easy to get caught up in the absurd moments of Trump’s performance—the Lincoln comparisons, the weird, campy faces when he pretends to take notes, the horrible moment where he said only “low IQ” immigrants would ever show up for a court date. But I think this debate actually showcased the failure of his reelection campaign in a more subtle way. Trump did manage four pretty effective attacks against Biden: He took him to task for the 1994 crime bill. He called out his past support for cutting Social Security. He hit him for supporting limits on fracking, at least on federal lands. And, in a particularly worrisome moment, he got Biden to talk about phasing out oil, which I’m pretty sure made Democrats in Texas and Montana do a facepalm. Those are the kinds of attacks that could chip away at Biden’s support among seniors, Black men, and Pennsylvanians. It was a glimpse of what a sane, rational Trump messaging machine might have spent the past four months hammering at. But nobody is going to remember any of it, because instead Trump spent most of the night going on about $3 million payments from Russia and Biden selling pillows and sheets to Ukraine, while bragging about being immune to coronavirus.

Christina: That’s a good point—Biden has real weaknesses. There’s a reason he didn’t have much enthusiasm among voters in the Democratic primary for a good long while. And even when Trump performed as a slightly more muted version of himself, he couldn’t focus hard enough to make them the driving narrative of this debate. This may be a case where his narcissism and reliance on personal attacks could actually come back to haunt him.

Jordan: Like you said, Biden knows what audience he has to connect with to win (old people who’d like to live until their grandkid’s next birthday). And Trump still hasn’t figured it out.