Trump mayhem takes over first debate

Trump mayhem takes over first debateSeptember 30, 2020

The mayhem Donald Trump subjected Americans to on Tuesday might have helped him if Joe Biden had disintegrated.

Biden didn’t.

Trump just left viewers worse off for having sat through the whole, weird thing.

The president interrupted and bullied. Biden called the president a “clown.” Chris Wallace, the moderator, despaired.

“The country would be better served,” the veteran journalist said to Trump, “if we allow both people to speak with fewer interruptions.”

The result was a circus that will be viewed as one of the strangest confrontations in modern presidential history.

At one point, when Wallace asked Trump, as he did repeatedly, to let Biden finish one of his answers, Biden responded, “He doesn’t know how to do that.”

The debate was unwatchable, in some ways a fitting conclusion to a day that began with Republicans peddling conspiracy theories about Biden wearing an earpiece.

He wasn’t, Biden’s campaign says. Nor was there any evidence, despite Trump’s suggestions, that Biden was on drugs.

What is clear — just as much after the debate as before it — is that Biden is ahead in this race and Trump will leave the debate still desperate for something to pull him down.

He is running out of time, with early voting already underway in some states and few voters still undecided.

Here are the the takeaways from Tuesday’s debate:

Biden stood his ground

Trump’s nonstop interruptions might have worked had the bulldozing made Biden look small.

It didn’t. Instead, it served to align Biden with Wallace — and through the moderator, viewers at home. Trump labored to talk over them both.

The effect of the chaos was that Biden could do little affirmatively to make his case for president. But as the frontrunner, the onus was not on him to.

Instead, he stood in for the onslaught, at times laughing Trump off, at others belittling him.

“You’re the worst president America has ever had,” Biden said. “Come on.”

Trump had to know that Biden would be more difficult to flatten than he’d once anticipated. For months, Trump had portrayed Biden as confused and mentally “out of it,” and everyone could see right through the course correction when it came.

Biden was an “uneven” debater, Trump said Sunday — sometimes “okay,” but probably because he used performance enhancing drugs. Before the debate, insinuating the presence of an earpiece (a claim Biden’s campaign denied), Trump’s advisers asked for a pre-debate inspection of Biden’s ears.

It was too late. Trump pushed expectations for Biden so low that his supporters turned on their televisions expecting to see Biden — teleprompter-less — collapse in a puddle of his own drool. Since he didn’t, they were in for a deflating night.

The kernel of truth in Trump’s assessment of Biden is that he has, in fact, been an uneven debater. Viewers of the Democratic primary debates will remember him telling parents to keep “the record player on” at night, promising to “keep punching” at domestic violence and imploring an audience to “go to ‘Joe 30330,’” as if they could text a website.

Biden wasn’t eloquent on Tuesday. But he didn’t need to be. Americans have already grimaced through reels of Joe Biden gaffes — and they don’t seem to care. He didn’t need a standout performance, only a stable one. And because of Trump’s wildly undisciplined exercise in expectation setting – and bizarre commitment to interruption – Biden only needed to come off as sane.

A fraud ‘like you’ve never seen’


Perhaps the most revealing discussion on Tuesday did not pertain to the vote — but to what happens after.

If Tuesday was any indication, it is going to be war.

For more than four years, Trump has made repeated, baseless claims about widespread voter fraud, and he has refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses. Last week, he said he expects the contest to “end up in the Supreme Court,” as if that were normal (it isn’t; Bush v. Gore was an aberration).

But if anyone was still watching on Tuesday, Trump aired his grievances for a national audience once more.

He said he is “counting on” the Supreme Court to “look at the ballots,” with a mail-in voting system he said is a “disaster.”

“This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen,” Trump said.

Biden said Trump is “trying to scare people” and is “just afraid” of counting the vote.

The effect of Trump’s rhetoric may reverberate far beyond the election. Americans have already lost a significant amount of faith in the electoral system. According to a recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll, just 22 percent of Americans expect the presidential election to be “free and fair.” This has immediate practical implications for November, with some evidence that lower trust in an electoral system results in decreased turnout.

But it also suggests that the electorate is primed for a post-election scramble over the results. Tuesday’s debate was a preview of not just of what the closing days of the campaign will offer, but also its immediate aftermath.

Trump smeared Biden. Biden smeared him right back

Trump didn’t win the presidency because people liked him. He won because voters in enough swing states loathed Hillary Clinton more.

The difficulty for Trump, as it has been since the start of the campaign, is that Biden is far less polarizing than Clinton. Before the debate, nothing that Trump has thrown at Biden has stuck — not China, not Biden’s mental acuity, not Hunter Biden’s ties to Ukraine.

Tuesday night may have represented Trump’s last best chance to drag Biden through the mud — anything to pull his favorability down.

How low could Trump go? As expected, he went to Hunter Biden — not only on Ukraine, but for his drug use. The man, Trump said, was “dishonorably discharged for cocaine use” and didn’t have a job until Biden was vice president.

Biden shot back, “None of that is true,” before saying he was “proud” of his son for overcoming his drug problem.

Like so much else in the nation’s discourse, Trump has set the rhetorical bar for debates at subterranean levels. But Trump’s most effective smear may have been the one closest to the truth — that Biden is a creature of Washington.

It’s inconvenient for Trump’s reprisal of the outsider argument he made four years ago that he is now the incumbent president. But it is not an impossible case to make. The line he repeated Tuesday was about Biden’s “47 years,” contrasting his own, relatively brief tenure in government with Biden’s.

He said Biden could have cut drug prices during his “47 year period in government,” for example.

At another point, Trump said, “Forty-seven years, you’ve done nothing.”

Biden might have learned in all those years, however, that it’s best not to be a shrinking violet. And on Tuesday, he wasn’t.

“Will you shut up, man?” Biden said once when Trump was interrupting him. “This is so unpresidential.”

Debate by proxy

Biden’s a lot harder to tear down than other, less avuncular Democrats, so Trump has spent much of the campaign trying to yoke him to softer targets.

On Tuesday, there was Trump, once again, portraying Biden a puppet of the progressive left. Biden’s health care plan, Trump said, is “socialist.” And even if Biden’s plan isn’t, he suggested the left would be pulling the strings.

None of Trump’s attacks by-proxy have worked so far, and Biden countered him forcefully on Tuesday. “I am the Democratic Party right now,” Biden said.

But Biden also refused, as he has before, to say if he opposes calls from within the Democratic Party to expand the court in response to Republicans filling a vacancy before the election, a change he has long opposed. Nor has Biden released a list of people he would consider appointing, as Trump has.

Those are blank spaces, and Trump in the coming weeks will eagerly fill them in, suggesting the left flank of the Democratic Party will be in charge.

Viewers may not buy that, of course. Biden is a centrist and an institutionalist who defeated more progressive Democrats in the primary. A more convincing foil might have been the other person in the room, Wallace, the Fox News journalist.

“First of all, I guess I’m debating you, not him,” Trump said near the start of the debate, when Wallace pleaded to get a question in. “I’m not surprised.”

Viewers shouldn’t be, either. The media isn’t particularly popular, and if Republicans need to explain an ineffectual debate performance, it will be easy for them to suggest the outcome would have been different if Wallace had simply let Trump talk over everyone all night long.

It’s still a referendum on Trump

The election began as a referendum on Trump. And despite all of the disruption this year, including a global pandemic and widespread civil unrest, every sign on Tuesday pointed to it remaining so.

For Trump, that is not an appealing prospect. Earlier this month, deaths from the coronavirus topped 200,000. Schools and businesses are still closed. The economy is in tatters.

It took Joe Biden about one minute to pivot from a question about the Supreme Court to health care. And the coronavirus wasn’t far behind.

More people will die, he said, unless Trump gets “a lot smarter, a lot quicker” about Covid-19.

Trump dug in on Biden on race relations, criticizing him for calling criminals “super predators” in the 1990s, and he faulted Biden for the Obama administration’s handling of the military and veterans affairs.

But more often, Trump tried to look forward, an effort to persuade Americans that life could, in fact, be worse than it is. If Biden is elected, Trump said, “Our suburbs would be gone, and you would see problems like you’ve never seen.”

Trump’s law-and-order campaign has largely fallen flat, in part because his dire warnings about “Biden’s America” all reference unrest occurring in a country where Trump, not Biden, is president. But fear and anger are reliable motivators in elections, and Trump will now need to lean into both in the next two debates if he’s going to turn his campaign around.

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