Politics 2020: Bullying Donald Trump and Ineffectual Chris Wallace Turn Debate Into Unmitigated Disaster

Bullying Donald Trump and Ineffectual Chris Wallace Turn Debate Into a Disaster

Donald Trump And Joe Biden - First Presidential debate
Morry Gash-Pool/Getty Images

There will be many disputes about who won or lost Tuesday night’s debate and I’m sure that most of that will break down along party lines, because this is where we are.

If you tuned into Tuesday’s debate looking for a substantive discussion on actual issues, you didn’t get it.

Vice President Joe Biden tried, but he was back on his heels almost the entire time as President Donald Trump misrepresented Biden’s policies aggressively and persistently over 90 minutes. Donald Trump didn’t go into this debate to have a conversation or even to argue on his own record. He just didn’t, and if you got one or two of his handlers even slightly drunk (or maybe not even that) they’d admit it. Trump went in to badger, interrupt and bully Joe Biden. And hey, you know what? If that’s what he wanted to do, that’s what he wanted to do. And I’m betting that a solid percentage of voters — most of his base, at least — thought Trump succeeded.

But if you tuned into Tuesday’s debate hoping for a thoughtful conversation about anything, you got whatever the absolute opposite of that is. So no matter what your insta-polling tells you tonight, the only people who won tonight’s debate are the people who didn’t watch — and even if you didn’t watch, it’s not like you aren’t stuck dealing with the ramifications.

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So we all lost. We lost Stateside. And we lost in terms of global perception: I can’t imagine anybody anywhere in the world watching that debate and not feeling embarrassed for the American Experiment and where it stands. This was shameful.

This was shitty television. Maybe we were never going to get a Lincoln-Douglas debate, but there had to be a middle ground that wasn’t releasing a hyena on the stage and politely trying to tell the hyena that he and his handlers agreed that this would be a no-ankle-gnawing debate.

Moderator Chris Wallace, the third 70-something white man occupying the spotlight tonight, will get the bulk of the blame.

He should. He shouldn’t take the blame exclusively. Every once in a while, Wallace tried to keep things on the rails and he made several persistent attempts to get Trump to say seemingly non-controversial things like, “Climate change is real and bad” or “White supremacists are real and bad.” Trump did acknowledge a tiny piece of human responsibility for climate change before going back to talking about “forest cities,” and he steadfastly refused to criticize right-wing groups or white supremacists. “Yes, white supremacy is bad” should have been within his range. He wouldn’t say that any more than he would say he’ll accept the results of the election.

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Once upon a time, in a simpler age, Al Gore was perceived as having lost a debate because he sighed and rolled his eyes at something George W. Bush said. You would be hard-pressed to find more than a half-dozen sentences that Biden said that Trump didn’t grunt, interrupt or wave his hands dismissively at. And yes, it probably must be acknowledged that Biden called Trump a “clown” several times.

Those same people will say that Wallace kept supporting Biden by telling Trump not to interrupt and that Biden looked weak because he attempted to play by something resembling the rules. And, indeed, Wallace definitely kept telling Trump not to interrupt and if you’re saying that five minutes in, it’s because Trump simply had no desire to have a debate and made that clear immediately. But if you’re saying that after 90 minutes, it’s because you’ve been ineffective at your job.

Is Wallace to blame for this nadir of the national discourse? Probably not. Did he fail at his job? Yes. Incontestably. I can’t even imagine the argument that this wasn’t a failure of moderation.

What should Chris Wallace have done? Dunno. Not my job. When you’re the moderator, your job is to moderate. When you’re a TV critic, your job is to complain, or at least critique. And whatever goals Wallace went into the debate with — six topics, 15 minutes a piece, blah blah blah — there is absolutely no way that even Wallace believes he accomplished that.

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Somebody could have walked off the stage. It could have been Chris Wallace. It could have been Joe Biden. It wouldn’t have been Donald Trump because chaos was Donald Trump’s main objective. His perfect scenario would have been standing alone on the stage with a “Did I do that?” shrug after Wallace and Biden stormed out in a fit of pique. But does that mean Trump won?

His supporters will say so and wouldn’t have said otherwise even if somebody had dumped a big vat of pig’s blood on his head and 88-year-old Piper Laurie had stormed the stage yelling, “They’re all going to laugh at you!”

However, Donald Trump had other narratives he had to perpetuate, narratives that might actually have changed the opinions of those strange unicorns known as “undecided voters.” (Think Rick the syphilitic hormone monster from Big Mouth.)

Biden did not come across as even vaguely senile, which has been a non-stop talking point for the Brit Humes. And there was definitely no indication that Biden had been given the debate answers in advance, as other conspiracy theorists claimed baselessly. (Seriously. What questions that Wallace asked tonight could Biden have been given? Every topic had been announced previously.) Nor did he seem to be on drugs. If he seemed disoriented, it was because there was a hyena gnawing at his ankle.

Did Joe Biden not know he was debating a hyena? Everybody else knew he was debating a hyena. Should he have — to paraphrase everybody’s favorite hyena-adjacent musical ditty — been better prepared?

Biden did not attempt to bully Trump right back, and probably will get dinged for that. His only reference to Trump paying $750 in taxes was half-hearted. When Trump insulted Biden as stupid and made fun of his college degree, Biden didn’t ask about who took his SATs or his rumored academic performance at Penn. And when Trump interrupted Biden talking about his late son Beau’s military service by calling his other son, Hunter, a junkie and then went into one of several rants about Hunter’s ties to Burisma Holdings (in apolitical terms, that’s what we call a straight-up dick move), Biden didn’t ask Trump about various jobs his own kids got under shady or nepotistic circumstances. Would all of those things have been winning zingers? Nope. But how many people will applaud Biden for not getting in the muck himself? Almost nobody.

That debate didn’t change how I’m voting.

I’m betting that debate didn’t change the way you’re voting.

So it doesn’t matter if Trump won or Biden “won.”

Anybody who watched those 90 minutes of television is dumber for the experience. You. Me. All of us.

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