On Tuesday night, Donald Trump and Joe Biden faced off in their first presidential debate, moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace. Biden, a moderate Democrat, is leading significantly in the polls, and needed a performance that could be viewed as a tie, thus not affecting his polling. President Trump needed to win. Their differing goals plunged the debate into incomprehensible, hostile chaos.
Both candidates agreed to a set of rules for the debate beforehand. There would be six topics, chosen and announced beforehand, and questions derived by the moderator that were not known to either campaign. Wallace would ask a question to begin the topic, and each candidate had two uninterrupted minutes to give their answer. After, there would be roughly ten minutes of open discussion on the topic.
Out of the gate, Trump refused to bend to these rules. He interrupted Biden almost every time the Democrat spoke.Trump’s strategy appeared to focus on disrupting Biden and preventing him from getting a full thought out. Biden, clearly struggling to maintain composure against a barrage of insults and heckles, sometimes lashed out, calling Trump a “clown” three times, and once saying “will you shut up, man.” However, if Trump was hoping to have a moment when his opponent seemed senile or unsteady, he didn’t get it.
During the section on Coronavirus, Trump mocked Biden for wearing a mask at campaign events, a sentiment that gained new relevance when the president tested positive for Covid-19 a few days later.
Another important highlight was Trump’s statement to the Proud Boys, a right-wing extremist group who have been partaking in violence in Portland and throughout the country. Here is a transcript of that interaction:
Wallace: “But are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups? And to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities, as we saw in Kenosha, as we’ve seen in Portland? Are you prepared specifically to do that?”
Trump: “Sure, I’m prepared to do it. I would say- I would say, almost everything I see is from the left-wing, not from the right wing. I’m willing to do anything; I want to see peace.”
Wallace: “Then do it, sir.”
Biden: “Say it, do it, say it.”
Trump: “You want to call them—What do you want to call them? Give me a name.”
Wallace: “White supremacists and, white supremacists and right-wing extremists—”
Biden: “The Proud Boys.”
Trump: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem.”
This statement from Trump has been met widely with criticism from Democrats and some Republicans, and the Proud Boys have taken it as an endorsement. Immediately they adopted “stand back and stand by” as a slogan, and can now be seen wearing shirts with the phrase. He later spoke out against the group on Fox’s Hannity, saying “I condemn the Proud Boys. I don’t know much about the Proud Boys, almost nothing, but I condemn that.” His statement during the debate continues a trend of President Trump being hesitant to condemn similar groups.
Chris Wallace, who moderated the debate, is a hugely respected and famously centrist journalist. Throughout the debate, he became more and more upset with Trump. Towards the beginning, he reprimanded both candidates equally, even telling them to “be serious” about Covid-19 after a disastrous first fifteen minutes. But during the third of six topics (the economy), there was a shift in Wallace’s attitude. He started specifically calling Trump out for interrupting, and seemed to commiserate with Biden about not being able to get a word in. Although he was aiming most of his chiding at Trump, Wallace clearly wanted to avoid fact checking. As a result, a laundry list of lies were told by mostly Trump, but with Biden also telling a few of his own (no, Trump didn’t tell people to inject bleach in their arms).
The most troubling part of the debate, and the part in which Trump told his most destructive lies, came during the section on election integrity, when Trump listed conspiracy theories over Biden and Wallace. Most of the time he was just listing locations (“Take a look at what happened in Manhattan, take a look at what happened in New Jersey, take a look at what happened in Virginia and other places”) and saying ballots were dumped in “creeks” and “rivers.” But more important were his responses that showed his lack of respect for the democratic process. His answers lead to questions about whether or not he was encouraging violence, and whether he would even give up the presidency if Biden was elected.
The debate, as anyone who watched it would agree, was a disaster. Both candidates showcased the worst argument for their election. Not in what they said—there was little substance discussed in the hour and a half event—but through their behavior. Trump was chaotic, not constrained by rules (rules he had agreed to), and lied consistently. When faced with simple, yes or no questions, soft ball questions that Wallace was clearly asking to get the president out of a corner he had put himself in, Trump refused to answer in a way that would assuage voters’ fears. He did not recognize the validity of climate change, he hemmed and hawed about whether or not he would accept the result of the election, and he refused to outright condemn white supremacy. President Trump acted in a way that would satisfy and energize his base, with a disregard for anyone else.
Biden also displayed his flaws as a candidate and possible president. He made classic gaffs, from small and inconsequential mistakes like calling Trump “Putin’s puppy” when he presumably meant to say “puppet,” to implying that he supports the Green New Deal (he doesn’t). He seemed confused when asked follow up questions about his own policies. But most importantly, Biden seems unable to articulate why he should be president. His ability to attack Trump was on full display, but it seems Biden doesn’t have a clear idea what his candidacy is really about.
While neither candidate made a good case for their bid to be president, treating them equally is wrong. It would be wrong to say that Biden’s behavior was worse than Trump’s, because it was not. He interrupted less, he lied less, he broke no norms and showed respect for Wallace, the voters, and the democratic process. To not point this out, to not point out that how Trump acted was the most important and most troubling part of the debate would be journalistically irresponsible.