Trump’s Awful Debate Performance

I was expecting bad, not dreadful.

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“What a dark event we have just witnessed,” Brian Williams said, as he greeted the post-debate audience with disbelief. “If that isn’t a mess, it’ll do ‘til the mess gets here.”

The debate was bad, and somehow got worse as the night went along.

Everything was just uneasy tonight. Even the sparsely populated arena, which reminded me of Trump’s inauguration, seemed off.

What exactly was the singular low point for Trump? It’s hard to tell, there were so many. Was it when Trump had to be dragged — kicking and screaming — to denounce white supremacy?

Trump’s near-constant interruptions throughout the night grew tiresome. He would be instructed not to interrupt when others were speaking, then had to be reminded five seconds later like a disobedient child. When Trump asked Chris Wallace, the debate’s moderator, to also remind Joe Biden not to interrupt Trump, Wallace responded, “Well frankly you’ve been (interrupting) more, sir.”

The interruptions were so persistent that they had to be part of Trump’s game plan going into the debate. Maybe to exploit Biden’s stuttering problem? I’m not sure. It didn’t work.

Early in the night, perhaps if one squints hard enough, Trump seemed to have a plan. He hammered an economic message, acknowledged that the virus hit hard, but that he is the right man to build the economy back. If he did it once, he could do it twice. And when going on offense, he tried to push Biden to the left and lump him in with Comrade Sanders.

I’m no Trump fan, but if I were consulting him, that is the winning messaging.

But like all good things with Trump, they don’t stay good for long. Trump quickly abandoned this plan and instead opted to interrupt Biden with bizarre rants. The president once interrupted Biden with an insane aside about how Biden could not use the word “smart” in any sentence, and then talked about Biden’s grades in college. (This would have been a perfect time for Biden to snap back, “At least I didn’t pay for someone to take my SATs.”)

I was struck with how often Trump was on defense, normally not a position he finds himself in. Then again, when you only get interviewed by Fox News and your only interaction with the public is seeing rallygoers, maybe that’s by design.

Trump was really defensive about abortion. When Biden noted that a 6–3 right wing majority with Justice Amy Barrett could overturn Roe v. Wade, Trump immediately interjected. “There’s nothing happening (about abortion),” Trump blurted out. He then told Biden “you don’t know her position (on abortion).” This is classic GOP. Trump runs on appointing justices to overturn Roe and courts the pro life vote, then as soon as Roe is in the crosshairs, Trump plays dumb.

“Abortion? What abortion?”

He also was on defense for his coronavirus response, or lack thereof. And on his taxes. And on climate change. And when he wasn’t on defense, he sounded desperate at times. “The vaccine will be ready in weeks,” a low energy Trump muttered at one point. Even he didn’t believe his own lies.

Trump also played the victim card, early and consistently. Chris Wallace would point out facts, such as Trump not passing a healthcare plan yet, and instead of disagreeing or offering counterpoints, Trump would immediately attack the moderator. “I guess I’m debating you (Chris), not (Joe),” Trump said.

Hunter Biden got more playtime than anyone would have guessed going into the debate. What little effect Trump had early in the debate when talking about the economy or pushing Biden to the left was immediately erased when he started interrupting Biden about his son’s dealings overseas. Burisma, something about…the mayor of Moscow? It was hard for me to keep track, and I follow the news. The Hunter Biden stuff is niche programming for already loyal voters. Casual voters, nonpartisans, independents, undecided voters, I’m sure, could have done without the Hunter Biden tangents.

Trump was short on policy, which should shock no one. There was nothing new tonight. His official climate plan is “I want clean water” and that he wants to plant a lot of trees.

One last thing about Trump, before I offer some parting thoughts about Biden’s performance. It is remarkable to me, even after four years of enduring the Trump experience, how rarely Trump can answer a simple question with a direct answer. At one point towards the end, when Wallace asks Trump if he would agree not to declare victory unless the election is officially over, Trump immediately begins talking about a group of Philadelphia poll watchers.

For the life of me, I couldn’t follow. What? Who are these poll watchers? And why does it matter if the question is about not declaring victory prematurely? Chris Wallace sounded confused too, but instead of trying to figure out what Trump was talking about, quickly asked Biden a separate question.

There were two bad moments for Biden. First, Trump pressed him to name a single law enforcement agency that endorsed him, and Biden couldn’t. Second, Biden conspicuously sidestepped a question about whether he would agree to end the filibuster or pack the courts, even when pressed by Wallace, the moderator.

Besides those two moments, Biden performed extremely well, especially given the circumstances. Of the ten best lines of the night, Biden easily had nine of them. Luckily for Trump, there was no audience to applaud them. Some notable Biden lines included:

“It is what it is because you are you are.”

“Trump wouldn’t know a suburb unless he took a wrong turn.”

“My son was in Iraq, he was not a loser, he was a patriot!”

And, my personal favorite. “Will you shut up, man?”

Biden was most dangerous when he could build some momentum and not be interrupted every two seconds. The attacks he launched on Trump over Trump’s weakness with China, the Bible photo-op, and Trump’s record of racism were particularly stinging. Rarely did Biden’s punches fail to hit.

Democrats were worried about Biden losing his temper or stuttering profusely. Neither happened, even though Trump tried to trigger both. At times Biden would just smile and laugh off baseless attacks. Other times, he stood up to Trump toe to toe. I couldn’t be more impressed with Biden’s performance. Perhaps I was guilty of listening to Trump too much prior to the debate, I was half-expecting Biden to drool on himself mid-debate.

Finally, there will be a lot of hand wringing over Chris Wallace’s performance as debate moderator. I’m not sure what the consensus is yet, but it is a near impossible job to control Trump in this sort of setting. I thought he did a good job and made some interesting points. He noted that Obama’s last three years saw more job creation than Trump’s first three years, and pointed out that rising violence in cities is nonpartisan because Republican-run cities like Tulsa and Fort Worth are also seeing a rise in homicide.

Trump didn’t have an answer for either point. He rarely does when the interviewer isn’t Sean Hannity.

But this isn’t the Chris Wallace show, or even the Biden show, it’s the Trump show. He was aggressive, conspiratorial, ditzy, and defensive. A poor performance, even though expectations were already low.

Somehow, in a two person debate, Trump finished in third.

Written by

political science researcher. former valedictorian. reader/writer. host of “Politics Mostly” podcast.

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