Weep, beloved country. Donald Trump assured that the first American presidential debate on Tuesday was the worst in American history, a national humiliation. The rest of the world – and future historians – will likely watch and weep.
More likely than not, according to opinion polls, his opponent Joe Biden will win the November election and bring the republic back from the brink. If Trump is re-elected, however, this dark, horrific and insurmountable fever dream will surely be the front line of America’s obituary.
Only one man looked remotely presidential on the debate stage in Cleveland, Ohio, and it wasn’t the incumbent. He interrupted, ranted, raged, spewed lies and interrupted even more. Oh, and he passed up the opportunity to condemn white supremacists, instead telling them to “stand back and sit idly by.”
Debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News didn’t cover himself in glory either. He was like a school supplies teacher, desperately out of his depth as the unruly kids went wild. He didn’t enforce the rules or mute the president’s microphone.
In the face of this asymmetrical harassment, Biden showed self-control and held firm. He spoke on behalf of tens of millions of Americans when he asked, “Do you wanna shut up, man?” — the Biden campaign rushed to this slogan on a T-shirt before the debate was even over.
Five weeks before the election, the debate pitted an aging white man against a sweaty aging orange man like Richard Nixon in 1960. Anyone hoping for an elegant verbal spar or rapier wit was disappointed.
Perhaps it was just as well that coronavirus guidelines ensured the men stood apart on separate lecterns on a blue carpeted stage under an eagle symbol with the words ‘Union and constitution forever. No handshakes, no Trump run-in like he did behind Hillary Clinton’s back in 2016, no physical violence. Katie Hill, a former Democratic congresswoman, tweeted: “I literally don’t know how Biden doesn’t run around and punch him in the face.”
Trump sounded more like a challenger than an incumbent, jumping in and hurling petty insults such as, “Never use the word ‘smart’ with me… There’s nothing smart about you, Joe. ” The hapless Wallace struggled to take control as viewers heard only a cacophony of voices. “I am the moderator of this debate, let me ask my question”, he almost pleaded.
At times, Wallace was too lenient with Trump, although at one point he told her, “Honestly, you did more interruptions.”
Biden mostly kept his cool, preferring to laugh with world-weary bemusement. “It was really a productive segment, wasn’t it?” he says sarcastically from the start. “Keep yappin’, man. »
Other memorable lines include, “You are the worst president America has ever had”; “The thing is, everything he says so far is a lie. I’m not here to expose his lies. Everyone knows he’s a liar”; “It’s hard to have a word with this clown – excuse me, this person”; “President Trump wouldn’t know a suburb unless he took a wrong turn.”
And, on the coronavirus crisis, which has killed more than 200,000 people in the United States: “’It is what it is’ because you are who you are,” Biden said, accusing Trump of having mishandled the pandemic, and added, “Maybe you can inject bleach into your arm, that would take care of it. At times, Biden walked through the chaos looking directly at the camera and calling out to voters, “It’s not about his family or my family,” as the attacks got very personal. “It’s about your family.”
He also avoided some of the missteps that plagued his Democratic primary debate performances. He brushed off the Trump campaign’s attack that he’s beholden to the far left, insisting, “I’m the Democratic Party right now.”
Biden condemned Trump for recent reported comments disparaging dead soldiers as “losers” and “suckers.” He said of his late son Beau, who served: “My son was in Iraq. It’s been a year. He got the bronze star. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. He was not a “loser”. He was a patriot. »
Trump awkwardly tried to change the subject for Biden’s son, Hunter. Biden retorted, “I’m talking about my son Beau Biden,” then addressed the attack on Hunter, in which Trump falsely claimed he was dishonorably discharged from the military.
“My son, like a lot of people…had a drug problem,” Biden shot back. “He overtook him. He fixed it. He worked there. And I’m proud of him. »
There hasn’t been an iota of sympathy from the president or an effort to pay tribute to Beau Biden, who died of a brain tumor in 2015.
It was a brief moment of emotional clarity in an otherwise nightmarish and incoherent mess. Worse still, when Wallace asked Trump if he was ready to condemn white supremacists and militias, the president couldn’t, saying, “Proud Boys, back off and stay away!” But I’ll tell you what, someone has to do something about antifa and the left.
It’s hard to imagine Trump winning a single voter in the suburbs, where he lags particularly behind Biden, or anywhere else. Most viewers will likely have felt angry or sad and may have shut down long before the end.
Wallace reflected earlier this week: “If I did my job well, at the end of the night people will be like, ‘That was a great debate, who was the moderator? “”
The near-universal verdict was – expressed in the words of CNN political correspondent Dana Bash – a “shitshow”.