Debate Dust-Up: Are You Exasperated? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Donald Trump and Joe Biden during the first presidential debate at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland.
SourceOLIVIER DOULIERY/Getty

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because, amid all the interrupting, there was some instructive substance on race.

By Daniel Malloy

The seven incumbent presidents before Donald Trump who agreed to televised debates against their challengers have tended to stumble in the first debate. They haven’t been challenged onstage in four years; their challengers are spry and seize the chance to be sized up as equals with the occupant of the Oval Office.

But not last night. We didn’t get a haughty Trump, or a stumbling Trump. We got the same Trump we always get: the bulldozer, loose on facts and decorum. He was energetic, armed with a few key numbers, such as a $3.5 million payment from a Moscow billionaire to Joe Biden’s son Hunter (taken from a Senate Republican report that didn’t find any wrongdoing) and a projected 2 million coronavirus deaths in Trump’s fantasy counterfactual world if Biden were president. 

Early on, Biden tripped over a few words and hadn’t quite found his footing. But when he did, he took an approach he assumes the American people share: exasperation.

Some select Biden quotes:

  • “It’s hard to get any word in with this clown.”
  • “Will you shut up, man?”
  • “I’m not going to listen to him.”

Biden deployed some dismissive laughs, but it wasn’t quite the same tactic he used in his 2012 vice presidential debate with Paul Ryan (and Biden, at age 77, is at least a step slower than he was eight years ago). Back then, he tried to belittle Ryan. Now, he’s hoping people are as sick of the president as he is.

Moderator Chris Wallace — as a parent of preschoolers, I could empathize with his predicament — tried in vain to stop all the interrupting and steer the debate on his prescribed course. Wallace’s best effort at fact-checking appeared to be correcting Trump on who interrupted more (hint: It was Trump).

It was an exasperating 90 minutes, and probably left many in the biggest audience of this year’s campaign dying to change the channel. But there’s always something compelling about a car wreck, and the exchanges were at times instructive on the substance. Particularly when race was discussed.

Trump hammered Biden on the 1994 crime bill and misquoted him, using the term “superpredators” — that was his last opponent, Hillary Clinton — in contrast to Trump’s own work on the First Step Act, which helped ease federal prison sentences. 

But no one does white grievance like Trump. Asked by Wallace about his decision to ban racial sensitivity training in the federal government, Trump’s answer included this: “If you were a certain person, you had no status in life. It was sort of a reversal.” As in, white folks were no longer on top.

Asked whether he’d denounce white nationalists — specifically, the Proud Boys — Trump told them “stand back and stand by,” before talking about antifa, a left-wing collection. A question about healing racial divides became an answer about “law and order.” He urged “my supporters to go in and watch” the polls in places like Philadelphia. Notably, this is the first presidential election in decades in which the Republican Party is allowed to conduct such “ballot security” operations, after a judge lifted a consent decree instituted because the GOP was found to have used these tactics to intimidate Black voters.

It all built up to one of Biden’s strongest moments of the night, following Trump’s histrionics about the end of the suburbs. “This is not 1950,” Biden said. “All these dog whistles and racism don’t work anymore. Our suburbs are by and large integrated.”

It’s the suburbs that represent the biggest threat to Trump now, and he knows it. The polls show Biden ahead — though not insurmountably — and while Trump will play up the former vice president’s verbal stumbles, there was no meltdown, no catastrophe to shake the race Tuesday night. There was no new Trump either. Likely, the few voters still trying to make up their minds by watching this shoutfest will simply throw up their hands in exasperation.

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