My house is blissfully quiet, but my ears are still ringing.
The first presidential debate of 2020 was unlike anything we have seen before. CNN’s Jake Tapper said: "That was a hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck." "He was his own tweets come to life." “We’ll talk about who won the debate, who lost the debate ... One thing for sure, the American people lost.” Conservative pundit William Kristol called it “a spectacle… an embarrassment… a disgrace… because of the behavior of one man, Donald Trump. The interrupting and the bullying, the absence of both decency and dignity—those were Donald Trump’s distinctive contributions to the evening, and they gave the affair the rare and sickening character of a national humiliation.”
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
In a normal presidential debate, both candidates try to explain their policy proposals, jab at their opponent, and convince undecided voters to move in their direction. If this had been a normal presidential debate, its weight would have fallen on Trump, who is significantly behind Biden, to win voters. Biden’s goal would simply have been not to lose anyone.
If we were calling this like a normal presidential debate, Trump lost. He did not move the needle in his direction. Biden won; he did not lose anyone.
But this was not a normal presidential debate.
Trump long ago gave up the pretense that he wanted to win a majority of voters. For months now, he has made no effort to reach outside of his base. Instead he has focused on solidifying and radicalizing it. As his trade war with China and the coronavirus has weakened his support, he has given massive grants to farmers, promised checks to 33 million elderly to help pay for prescriptions, splashed transportation grants around, and recently even offered grants to lobstermen who have lost business because of the trade war.
Trump set out tonight not to convince undecided voters to support him, but rather to harden his supporters and encourage them to disrupt the election so he can contest the results until the solution goes to the Supreme Court where he hopes a majority will rule in his favor. He laid it all out tonight.
His performance was no accident. He came out determined to dominate the debate in much the same way as Fox News Channel personalities or talk radio hosts dominate their shows. He interrupted, argued, lied, and generally sucked the oxygen out of the room. He cheated, refusing to follow the rules that he had agreed to, thus demonstrating that he would not be bound by the rules everyone else had to live by. He bullied moderator Chris Wallace of the Fox News Channel into repeatedly appeasing him by saying, for example, “Mr. President you’re going to be very happy, because we’re going to talk about law and order,” and “Let me ask — sir, you’ll be happy, I’m about to pick up on one of your points to ask the vice president.” Trump was attempting to demonstrate his dominance.
He went on to echo the grievances and lies that his supporters have come to believe. Ignoring the more than 200,000 Americans dead of Covid-19, he insisted he was the victim of Democrats’ lies about the disease. When Wallace tried to rein him in, he attacked him for being unfair, although Wallace never once fact-checked Trump’s lies.
If Trump had a strategy at all that involved voters, it was to try to keep them from backing Biden. Trump kept yelling at him about “Law & Order,” as he likes to tweet, and kept trying to drive a wedge between Biden and the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party, finally saying to him: “You just lost the left.”
Trump tipped his hand, though, when Wallace asked: "Are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down?” Trump demanded names of such groups, and Wallace named, among others, the Proud Boys, the hate group that helped to organize the riot in Charlottesville, Virginia. After hedging, Trump finally answered: "Proud Boys, stand back and stand by! But I'll tell you what, somebody's got to do something about antifa and the left." "That's my president," the head of the Proud Boys posted on the social media chair that will still host them. Within an hour the group had new shoulder patches designed with the words “Stand Back and Stand By.”
Trump called for his supporters to act as poll watchers to prevent a fraudulent vote. He is losing badly in Pennsylvania, a state he needs, and tonight he lied that Philadelphia election officials refused to permit his poll watchers to observe voting. “Bad things happen in Philadelphia,” he said, “bad things.” The truth is that seven satellite offices where voters can register and apply to vote, complete, and drop off mail in ballots opened in Philadelphia. Poll watchers are not allowed because there is no polling taking place. Trump’s calls for poll watchers are pretty clearly calls for voter intimidation.
Tonight, again, Trump refused to commit to accepting a Biden victory, saying that he could not agree to fraudulent results. He suggested the election could take months to solve, and that he “definitely” wants the Supreme Court, including his new nominee Amy Coney Barrett, to “look at the ballots.” (Democrats have said Barrett should recuse herself from any election-related cases; Republicans say that is “absurd.”)
It was a performance designed to show a strong man who is calling out his armed supporters to enable him to seize an election he cannot win freely.
But Trump performed as he did because it’s all he’s got. He has no policies, no platform, no plans that he can sell to the American people, and no attention span either to govern or to explain how he wants to govern. So his only option is to dominate. Even he knows that ploy is a desperate one. Tonight’s tell was actually in his dominance play itself: overt bullying like he displayed tonight is actually a sign of weakness and abuse, not of true power.
The bar for Biden going into this debate was low: since he is so far ahead, he simply needed not to lose votes. But he did well. First of all, he managed to retain his train of thought, which was no easy thing with Trump interrupting and lying and yelling, clearly trying to derail him and, at the very least, bring out his stutter. He put to rest Trump’s insistence that he is failing mentally.
Despite Trump, Biden also managed to explain some of his policies, too, as well as pointing out that more than 200,000 Americans have died on Trump’s watch, and that he has done the economy no favors. Under Trump, he said, America has become “weaker, sicker, poorer, more divided and more violent.”
But Biden’s strongest moments were ones Trump teed up. When Biden defended our troops from Trump’s “losers” and “suckers” comments, citing his son, Beau, who died of cancer after his service in Iraq, Trump missed the opportunity to acknowledge Biden’s loss, and instead repeatedly attacked Biden’s son Hunter, who struggled with substance abuse. Trump insisted—incorrectly—that Hunter was dishonorably discharged from the Navy (in fact, he was administratively discharged), and tried to smear him. Biden looked directly at Trump to say that Hunter had a drug addiction he is managing, and Biden is proud of him. While Biden spoke as a father defending his son, his message will resonate with the 20 million Americans who are battling addiction.
Most important, though, Biden made the debate about the country and the American people, not about Trump. While Trump listed his own grievances, Biden spoke to the camera, asking Americans what they needed, what they think. He promised that we can accomplish anything if only we work together. He urged people to ignore the chaos and vote. “Vote whatever way is the best way for you,” he said. “Because he will not be able to stop you from determining the outcome of this election.”
Biden also refused to be scared off by Trump’s threats not to honor the election results. He brushed them off, saying “I will accept it, and he will, too. You know why? Because once the winner is declared once all the ballots are counted, that’ll be the end of it.”