History says that presidential debates, in the main, don’t matter. I don’t know what to say to history just now.
I don’t know what to say, period. I’m not sure if the presidential campaign ended Tuesday night after the worst 90 minutes of reality TV ever broadcast. Or if people looked at Donald Trump’s behavior and said to themselves, yes, that’s my kind of president. In a CNN insta-poll, they had Joe Biden winning the debate, 60% to 28%, so maybe there is some hope for America. I’m hoping there’s some hope anyway.
In a normal time, the headline story on the first presidential debate would have been Trump’s not-necessarily-surprising refusal to condemn white supremacy. Moderator Chris Wallace and Joe Biden both gave Trump a chance to make a stand for something approaching normalcy, a place Trump would successfully avoid going for much of the night.
Instead, Trump had these words for a right-wing extremist group, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” It’s being reported that the group is now making those words part of its logo and that T-shirts will soon be for sale. I guess that, like the QAnon people, Proud Boys like Trump, and that’s all he needs to know.
Trump’s comment was, of course, very much a sequel to his very-fine-people-on-both-sides commentary following the infamous racist march in Charlottesville. And, let’s face it, the comment was disgusting.
But that was not the lead to the story because this is not, as we all know, a normal time. And for those who watched the debate, let’s agree that disgusting is a mild description for the chaos that took place on the debate stage.
This was, as Dana Bash said on CNN, of all places, a shit show.
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That was the best description I heard. I heard a lot of “train wreck” and “embarrassment to the country” and “three-ring circus” and “unpresidential” and “OMG, what the hell is going on” and on and on. But I’ll go with shit show.
I’ve been watching this stuff for approximately forever, and I’d never seen anything like it or close to it. I mean, you’d think that people would be condemning Biden for calling the president of the United States “a clown” and telling him to “shut up, man.” Instead, they were praising him for his restraint for settling on calling him the worst president in American history.
I don’t know how well Biden did in the debate. No one knows how well he did. Trump talked over him and interrupted him at every turn. If anything was clear, though, it’s that the dementia argument should be over by now. Biden stood up for the entire 90 minutes and, in his best moments, talked directly to the cameras, ignoring Trump.
Before the debate, Trump said Biden should have to take a drug test, as if there were a drug that would enhance his debate performance. I don’t know. Maybe Trump thought Biden was injecting Clorox.
But if it’s unclear how well Biden did, because we couldn’t hear him much of the time, I know how well debate moderator Chris Wallace didn’t do. I”ve heard the excuses — that no one could have controlled Trump, and maybe so. But Wallace let the debate get out of control early when it was obvious that Trump was going to steamroll Biden and Wallace — who had conducted a very tough interview with Trump earlier in the month — and anyone else who got in his way, Wallace scolded both candidates. That, of course, was so much both-sidesism. There was only one side out of control, and that was Trump’s side.
Actually, it would be wrong to say Trump was out of control. This is what Trump wanted to show us. This was intentional. He didn’t lose his temper. He didn’t get particularly rattled. This was his game plan — to show that Biden couldn’t stand up to his bullying and therefore wasn’t presidential material. That may be the most remarkable thing. This is what Trump wanted us to see.
This was Trump’s lesson in how to turn his daily Twitter storms into standup insult comedy. We knew going in that Trump would go after Hunter Biden, who, let’s agree, did a fairly sleazy thing by joining the board of Burisma in Ukraine. It was not quite as sleazy, though, as what Trump did in regards to Ukraine while getting himself impeached.
But I didn’t know quite how shamelessly Trump would go after Biden’s son. It was ugly and mean-spirited and Trump at his worst, which is saying something. The main question I took from Trump’s performance is whether Trump is a worse person than he is a president. In my personal insta-poll, I’d rate it a tossup.
When Biden was talking about his late son, Beau, who had died of brain cancer, and his service in Iraq — while hitting Trump for reportedly calling veterans “suckers” and “losers” — Trump began attacking Hunter Biden again and his struggles with drug addiction. There were many ugly moments during the 90 minutes, but that was the one when someone should have said to Trump: At long last, have you left no sense of decency?
We could break down the rest of the debate, but what exactly would be the point? This debate was not about policy. It was about Trump and only about Trump because everything is always about Trump, and Trump couldn’t care less about policy or racial injustice or any of the rest. I thought the big moment in the debate would come in discussing the New York Times story on Trump’s taxes and the fact that he paid only $750 in federal income tax in both 2016 and 2017. Wallace pressed him on it a few times before Trump said he had paid millions, which he didn’t expect anyone to believe.
As of now, the question is whether there will be any more debates. I thought Trump might back out of this one. He should have. He’s losing in the polls and has been for months and months. At this point in 2016, Trump was trailing Hillary Clinton by three percentage points. At this point in 2020, Trump is trailing Biden by six to eight points and getting killed in the women’s vote and in the suburban vote.
And when I wonder how Trump could possibly have thought his calculated bully-boy performance was going to change that calculus, I say to myself, “Shut up, man.” That’s the only performance he has in him.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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