“This is not going to end well,” Donald J. Trump said in the last section of Tuesday night’s debate.
This was an unusual way for a president of the United States to describe an election in which he is running. (He was in the middle of a misleading rant aimed at undermining faith in mail balloting.)
But as a description of the belligerent, earsplitting, deeply depressing first debate between President Trump and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., he was dead on. It didn’t end well. It didn’t begin well. And the parts in between were pretty lousy, too.
And that seemed to be very much the president’s strategy.
The advantage to being the one who derails a debate is that people assign symmetrical blame for asymmetrical behavior. They throw up their hands and complain about the bickering from “both sides.”
So let’s be clear here: If the first debate was a dumpster fire, it is the president whose hands were stained with kerosene.
Donald Trump has always approached debates like a guy in a bar fight looking for a bottle to break. But in the Cleveland studio, the Covid-19 pandemic had the effect of locking up the barware and cutlery. The audience — which he’s used in past debates to invite stunt guests, incite reactions and feed his energy — was small and quiet. The physical contact was minimal, so he couldn’t lurk and loom.
Instead, he looked within himself. Specifically, to his vocal cords. Mr. Trump, who has always viewed politics as a reality-TV display of dominance, fought the debate as if it were being scored by volume and number of sentences interrupted.
There were important issues on the agenda — the pandemic, the wounded economy, climate change. But Mr. Trump was mostly determined to drown them, and his opponent, and even the moderator, out.
As for the challenger, by the standards of any other debate in the TV era, Mr. Biden’s remarks would have been shocking. He called the sitting president a liar and a fool, a racist and a clown. He told him, at one point, “Will you shut up, man?”
But the America in which Mr. Biden once dismissed a Paul Ryan argument with a wry “malarkey” is ancient history. He was now, like everyone in public life, a character in the reality show that the president has been programming for four years.
Tonally, the challenger wanted to show he could stand up to a bullying, brawling debater, and to make the case that he would be a steady alternative to a constant earthquake of a presidency.
One goal would seem to contradict the other, but amid a Spinal Tap debate that went up to 11, maybe stopping at 10 counts as gravitas.
Mr. Biden also needed to avoid a repeat of his worst performance of the campaign, in his first Democratic debate, when Senator Kamala Harris — now his running mate — challenged his record on school segregation. Then, Mr. Biden seemed surprised, abashed and unprepared.
This time, Mr. Biden was facing an opponent who does not merely telegraph his punches, he windmills his arms, blows a trumpet and sends out a news release. Mr. Trump had for weeks dismissed his opponent as slow and foggy. He was obviously going to come out hard, trying to make him seem scattered and shaky.
Mr. Biden was not that. Where Mr. Trump relied on the jabs and improv he once used on Hillary Clinton, Mr. Biden had crafted lines: “It is what it is,” he said, repeating Mr. Trump’s notorious line about the pandemic’s death toll, “because you are who you are.”
He didn’t match Mr. Trump’s volume. He often lost control of their exchanges. And the cross talk mostly kept him from building the emotional pitches to the audience that he relies on.
But both men were embodying their campaign pitches through their style. Mr. Trump wanted to show himself as the dominator who fights for the last word. Mr. Biden wanted to make the president into the blaring radio that America begs someone to turn down.
Watch: Highlights From the First Presidential Debate
President Trump and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. went head to head on their records, civil unrest, election integrity and more.
“The last four years, you have promised to repeal and replace Obamacare, but you have never in these four years come up with a plan, a comprehensive plan —” “Yes, I have.” “— to replace Obamacare.” “Of course I have.” “Well, I’ll give you —” “We got rid of the individual mandate.” “I’m going to give you an opportunity —” ”Excuse me. I got rid of the individual mandate.” “I’m not here to call out his lies — everybody knows he’s a liar.” “But you agreed — Joe, you’re the liar.” “I want to make sure —” “You graduated last in your class, not first in your class.” “I — [laughs] — God. I want to make sure —” “Mr. President, could you let him finish, sir?” “The question is, the question is —” “A lot of new Supreme Court justices, radical left —” “Will you shut up, man?” “One of the big debates we had with 23 of my colleagues trying to win the nomination that I won were saying that Biden wanted to allow people to have private insurance still. They can, they do, they will, under my proposal.” “That’s not what you’ve said, and it’s not what your party has said.” “That is simply a lie.” “Your party doesn’t say it — your party wants to go socialist medicine.” “My party is me. Right now, I am the Democratic Party.” “And they’re going to dominate you, Joe, you know that.” “I am the Democratic Party right now. The platform of the Democratic Party —” “Not according to Harris.” “— is what I, in fact, approved of.” “Is it true that you paid $750 in federal income taxes each of those two years?” “I’ve paid millions of dollars in taxes, millions of dollars of income tax. Let me just say something, that it was the tax laws. I don’t want to pay tax. Before I came here, I was a private developer, I was a private business people. Like every other private person, unless they’re stupid, they go through the laws, and that’s what it is.” “I’m going to eliminate the Trump tax cuts.” “Good.” “And we’re going to, I’m going to eliminate those tax cuts —” “OK.” “— and make sure that we invest in the people who in fact need the help. People out there need help.” “But why didn’t you do it over 20, the last 25 years?” “Because you weren’t — because you weren’t president screwing things up.” “You were a senator —” “You’re the worst president America has ever had. Come on.” “You have repeatedly criticized the vice president for not specifically calling out antifa and other left-wing —” “That’s right.” “— extremist groups. But are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups —” “Sure.” “— and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities, as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland.” “Sure, I’m willing to do that, but —” “Then do it.” “Go ahead, sir.” “I would say, I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing.” “So what are you, what are you saying —” “I’m willing to do anything — I want to see peace.” “Well, then do it, sir.” “Say it. Do it. Say it.” “You want to call them — what do you want to call them? Give me a name, give me a name.” “White supremacists and —” “Go ahead, who would you like me to condemn?” “Proud Boys.” “Who?” “White supremacists and right-wing militia.” Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what. Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem, this is a left-wing —” “His own F.B.I. director said the threat is —” Are you questioning —” “No, I think masks are OK. You have to understand, if you look, I mean, I have a mask right here. I put a mask on, you know, when I think I need it. Tonight as an example, everybody’s had a test, and you’ve had social distancing and all of the things that you have to — but I wear masks when needed. When needed, I wear masks.” “OK, let me ask —” “I don’t wear masks like him — every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from — he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.” “Masks make a big difference. His own head of the C.D.C. said if we just wore masks between now — if everybody wore masks in social distance between now and January, we’d probably save up to 100,000 lives. It matters.” “And they’ve also said the opposite. They’ve also said —” “No serious person said the opposite.” “The fact is that there are going to be millions of people because of Covid that are going to be voting by mail-in ballots, like he does by the way. And this is all about trying to dissuade people from voting, because he’s trying to scare people into thinking that it’s not going to be legitimate.” “As far as the ballots are concerned, it’s a disaster. A solicited ballot, OK? Solicited is OK. You’re soliciting, you’re asking. They send it back. You send it back. I did that. This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen. The other thing: It’s nice, on Nov. 3, you’re watching and you see who won the election. And I think we’re going to do well, because people are really happy with the job we’ve done. But you know what? We won’t know, we might not know for months — because these ballots are going to be all over.” “Now that millions of mail-in ballots have gone out, what are you going to do about it? And are you counting on the Supreme Court, including a Justice Barrett, to settle any dispute?” “Yeah, I think I’m counting on them to look at the ballots, definitely. I don’t think we’ll — I hope we don’t need them in terms of the election itself, but for the ballots, I think so. I am urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it. I am urging my people — I hope it’s going to be a fair election. If it’s a fair election —” “You’re urging them what?” “— I am 100 percent on board. But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.” “Here’s the deal: They count the ballots. As you’ve pointed out, some of these ballots in some states can’t even be opened until Election Day. And if there’s thousands of ballots, it’s going to take time to do it. No one has established at all that there is fraud related to mail-in ballots, that somehow it’s a fraudulent process.” “It’s already been established.” “He has no idea what he’s talking about. Here’s the deal. The fact is, I will accept it, and he will too. You know why? Because once the winner is declared, after all the ballots are counted, all the votes are counted, that will be the end of it.”
The moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, did not seem nearly as prepared. He said before the debate that he planned to be a low-key presence, refraining from fact-checking and letting the conversation unfold on its own. And the same thing happened to him that happened to everyone else who made plans in 2020.
Mr. Wallace left the debate stage with tire tracks down his back. To his credit, he started talking back quickly, and — surprisingly for a host from the Trump-friendly cable network — made clear to the president that “Frankly, sir, you’ve been doing more interrupting.” (Mr. Trump then interrupted him.) But he was powerless to do much but interject, “Mr. President!” over and over.
What will people remember about this debate? Maybe the dueling rounds of blame on the pandemic, in a broadcast changed by that pandemic. (No handshakes, no spin rooms.) Maybe the president’s failing to condemn white supremacy and telling the violent far-right group the Proud Boys to “Stand back and stand by.” (The line delighted the group’s members online.)
But mostly, the first debate of 2020 was proof of how much we’ve become inured to since the then-stunning first debate of 2016. Even the phrases TV anchors used for it afterward — “train wreck,” “food fight” — felt overused and inadequate by now. (CNN’s Dana Bash was most vivid, using a phrase one letter removed from “hit show.”)
The best thing I could say about this debate is that in its cacophonous way, it was an argument, through the two candidates’ styles, about what kind of country we want to live in.
But it was also a clear, dismal and deafening reminder of what kind of country we actually do live in.
The first presidential debate devolved into chaos and name-calling, and President Trump notably refused to condemn white supremacists. Read the latest updates.
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