The Chernobyl Debate

It was mass media bloodsport on steroids as Donald Trump and Joe Biden faced off and every other sentient American lost.

This combination of pictures created on September 29, 2020 shows Democratic Presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden (L) and US President Donald Trump speaking during the first presidential debate at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio on September 29, 2020.(Photo by JIM WATSON,SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Last night, a Real Housewife squared off against a Turner Classic Movie, and the result was chaos in technicolor. Sixty years after a black-and-white John F. Kennedy stepped onstage with Richard Nixon and television became a serious campaign platform, the Biden/Trump contest saw the medium completely overwhelm the message. This wasn’t a debate so much as a thermonuclear accident, and it’s difficult to think we won’t all be suffering complications for years to come. Though you can’t really “win” an extravaganza of anger porn, surely the loser was the country as a whole.

“How ya doin’, man?” said Joe Biden to Donald Trump as the candidates took their podiums. It was the last civil remark either candidate would make for the next hour and a half. Consider that Biden called Trump a “liar,” “clown,” and the “worst president America has ever had,” and he was by far the more measured of the two. Trump, meanwhile, came off as a one-man infernal column, constantly interrupting the former vice president, questioning his intelligence, using his formidable rhetorical skills to draw Biden down rabbit holes. By the end, moderator Chris Wallace was dumping Everclear into a funnel.

Twitter went in hard on Wallace Tuesday night, as conservatives denounced him for seeming to prop up Biden and progressives grumbled that he didn’t do more to rein in Trump. And certainly Wallace’s breakneck changes of topic sometimes felt like missed opportunities. That was especially true when Biden refused to answer whether he would pack the Supreme Court, a subject worthy of interrogation, only for Wallace to veer off onto the coronavirus. But in Wallace’s defense, I’m not sure how much more he could have done. Moderator is a harder job than it seems. I find it incredibly difficult to interrupt a guest on our foreign policy podcast; I can’t even imagine trying to corral a motor-mouthed TV specialist like Trump.

The shame of it all for Republicans is that Trump could have won this debate if he’d wanted to. Repeatedly Biden gave him openings that a subtler and nimbler interlocutor might have exploited. There was that refusal to answer on court packing, an extraordinarily arrogant and evasive moment given the importance of the institution at stake. There was Biden’s outrageous claim that Antifa was “an idea, not an organization”—he was quoting FBI Director Christopher Wray, but try telling that to shop owners in Portland who have seen their livelihoods smashed. There was his failure to persuasively reconcile his 1994 crime bill with his sudden embrace of criminal justice reform. There was his awkward shrugging-off of the left, repudiating the Green New Deal and boasting about his victory over Bernie Sanders.

Behind the fiery curtain of anti-Trump anger lies a frayed Democratic Party. Yet rather than draw attention to that, Trump seemed unable to get out of his own way. He managed in the same 30-second span to both trash Biden’s support for the crime bill and accuse him of being against law and order. He called out Biden over Antifa, yet committed an unforced error just before, telling the self-described “Western chauvinist” Proud Boys group to “stand back and stand by.” I tend to think Trump was being more flippant than sinister there, contra the dark speculation on cable news today, but it still effectively spoiled what should have been a strong moment. And then came the rambling about the election being a fraud, ballots turning up in creeks—his job was to affirm our democratic system and shut up.

Not that most viewers would have registered any of that. Imagine you’re an undecided voter, someone who opts for the NFL pregame show over Meet the Press, someone who knows little about trade deficits or mail-in ballots—and you tune to the debate. Instantly your attention would be drawn not to the substance but to the vitriol in which it was entombed. It was impossible to learn anything about the candidates Tuesday night. Anybody who tried came away disappointed and possibly experiencing flashbacks. Apparently the website of Libertarian Party hopeful Jo Jorgensen crashed after receiving record traffic. After watching that Triangle Shirtwaist-caliber dumpster fire, is it any wonder?

That Biden didn’t come off better is an indictment on him (though he may have benefitted by virtue of juxtaposition). But it’s the Republicans who have the tougher questions to answer this week. I’m not always opposed to Fighting Trump (it’s refreshing, for example, to think of him bringing that debate stage persona to bear against his generals, demanding to know why we’re still in Afghanistan). But by refusing to acknowledge the moment and turn it down, Trump turned his temperament into the takeaway issue. Cue Frank Luntz’s panel of undecided voters, which absolutely shredded the president’s performance—one respondent called him a crackhead. Actually the debate itself was another kind of drug, televised conflict, and it’s past time we asked whether we’ve finally overdosed, whether we’re now willing to achieve some separation between politics and mass media spectacle.

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