2020 debates

That Debate Was Unwatchable

Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Heading into tonight’s debate, the first of three in this 2020 presidential cycle, I expected motion sickness. I expected the panicked queasiness that comes from feeling thrust back in time to the last election year, when an incoherent and pugnacious bully lurched his way across the debate stage, lying and interrupting his opponent at every turn. In many ways, tonight was like that, only somehow far worse — just a tangle of competing shouts that drowned out any hope of a cogent answer. It was an incoherent cacophony, chaotic, barely moderated, and nearly impossible to follow.

As expected, President Donald Trump revived his primary 2016 strategies — talking out of turn with abandon, yelling, and lying with impunity — straight out of the gate. Within two minutes (the time allotted to Trump to answer the first question, which was meant to be about the Supreme Court), he came trampling over Biden’s attempts at fact-based answers with misinformation and personal slights. A familiar tactic, but whereas Trump’s previous opponent, Hillary Clinton, was sharp enough to quickly flip his insults to her advantage (see: “Nasty Woman”), Biden initially tried to stick to the high road.

Biden attempted to guide the discourse back to facts, back to practiced responses, back to approved messaging. Only this was not the powerful, composed Biden of the DNC; this was a Biden worn down by a rogue human bulldozer, so obviously thrown by his opponent interrupting and needling him that he could neither meet the challenge nor complete his talking points. At one point, exasperated, he groaned, “Will you just shut up, man?”

Moderator Chris Wallace utterly failed to contain Trump, who kept screaming about the “radical left” and “antifa” and “the China plague” and “by the way I brought back football!!” For much of the night, Wallace struggled to get a word in edgewise, eventually pleading with Trump to stop interrupting. The dynamic between the three men is perhaps best summed up through the following exchange:

Trump’s preferred tactic tonight was to repeat his favorite lies at top volume, out of context, and in the middle of other people’s sentences. He enjoyed a cool 90 minutes of spewing unchecked misinformation. How does one even debate a person like that? It’s an exhausting enterprise, and Biden seemed duly disoriented. Next time, here’s hoping they pivot to some kind of Zoom function, so at least the moderator can mute as necessary.

That Debate Was Unwatchable