The First 2020 Presidential Debate: Where Can We Go From Here?

When I’m going to recap a debate, I spend the days ahead of it reviewing candidates’ policy plans and public statements. I check the latest polling and look for any new trends, particularly any constituencies that still seem “up for grabs.” When Chris Wallace announced the six topics for last night’s presidential debate, I narrowed my focus and tried to hone in on both candidates’ messages. I want to have as much information at my disposal as possible so that I can fact-check moments in the debate and be able to provide clarity on what the candidates’ records actually are and what their plans would portend for our community.

As the debate grew closer, I wondered how Joe Biden would grapple with a candidate who lied, a lot. Though his temper flared at points — rightfully so — he did as well as could be expected.

I wondered how the gender politics of it all — what Joe Biden was able to do or say that Hillary Clinton was not — would play out. Can you imagine Hillary Clinton getting away with calling Donald Trump a “clown” or telling him to “shut up?” No, no you cannot.

I wondered how Chris Wallace, who had been relatively balanced in his one-on-one interviews with the president, would manage on this stage. Not well, as it turns out.

But, no matter how much preparation I did or how much though I gave to how last night’s debate would play out, I was both woefully overprepared and woefully unprepared for the spectacle that took place.

CNN’s Jake Tapper called it, “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.” His colleague, Dana Bash, called it a “shitshow.”

Over on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow called the incumbent president’s performance, “a monstrous unintelligible display of logorrhea which has absolutely nothing to do with civic discourse, with debate or even with the integrity of the contest they’re about to approach.”

To those that didn’t watch last night’s debate, those words might seem like hyperbole, but as someone who sat through that god-awful debate, their critiques are spot on… if anything, they’re understating how bad it truly was. In all honesty, recapping that train wreck extends outside my capability as a writer. I was prepared to refute lies, that’s one thing; I was unprepared to refute bullying and unapologetic abusive behavior. So, if you’re looking for someone with something thoughtful or eloquent to say about the first presidential debate, I am not the one.

What you saw last night (or didn’t see, if you were lucky) wasn’t a strategy. Nothing about Trump’s oafish behavior represented an attempt to win swing voters. The walls are closing in on Donald J. Trump. The man who has escaped accountability for anything throughout his entire life — thanks largely due to his father’s money but also because his whiteness and his masculinity permit it — is finally about to face a reckoning. It is unavoidable: the election is coming and it will be a referendum on everything this president has done (or hasn’t done, as the case may be). It is his name on the ballot — there are no well-paid sycophants who can take the fall for him — and he will be held to account. That prospect frightens Trump more than anything.

So last night, he lashed out… this is the only play he has left. If he can establish enough distrust in the process that it suppresses voter turnout, through lie after lie after lie, he might be able to win another term. If he engages in voter suppression and continues to fan the flames of white supremacy, he can win, even if he loses: we’ll be left to put out those fires. He cannot win a fair fight so he has to sew chaos.

The question I’m left with — because the question of how to vote has been long since answered — is how to cover the chaos in a way that’s useful and informative for our readers. The Commission on Presidential Debates, which has been historically resistant to changing their operations, has promised to add “additional structure” ahead of the remaining two presidential debates, but will that be enough?

You can’t fundamentally change who this president is. He is a bully and an abuser. He is an unrepentant white supremacist. He lacks even a modicum of basic human decency when it comes to the deaths of 200,000+ Americans, much less the death of his opponent’s son. He is a liar who lies at every possible opportunity. Every action does actual harm to our communities and our democracy with his demagoguery. He has always been these things, he will always be these things and no amount of structural changes to the debate format can change that… so what does that mean for our debate coverage?

The truth is, after last night, I just don’t know.

A black biracial, bisexual girl raised in the South, working hard to restore North Carolina's good name. Lover of sports, politics, good TV and Sonia Sotomayor. Spends her Thursday nights trying to make #Shonday happen.

Natalie has written 136 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. I stayed far away from the debate, and this is the only debate-related article I’ve read (though I’ve seen plenty of headlines). I was both waiting to see what someone I trusted had to say, and hoping that none of you had to put yourselves through that. Thank you, Natalie.

  2. If any of the swing voters are like one of parents, then this debate actually worked. Cause one of them liked that Biden was looking at the camera & at the end of it gave his wife a kiss. Didn’t like that Melania didn’t look lovingly at her husband.

    Side note, that pisses me off & worries me that the President told the Proud Boys to standby instead of telling white nationalist & KKK members to fuck off or even a simple no to these groups, really anything but standby. The moderator should have called him out on that shit. Plus, it’s telling that the many of news didn’t really talk about it afterwards cause many of them are comfortable with their white Christian privilege. Like come on lives are at fucking stake.

  3. Natalie thank you for putting yourself through this experience in order to fully render the total breakdown of the debate process, and to come to this decision on how to cover this night of chaos — I appreciate your willingness to engage with it despite all the ways you could not possibly be prepared.

  4. i don’t study this stuff with the herculean effort Natalie puts in, to be sure, but this feels pretty familiar.

    seems like the performance goes like this… 1) he is spectacularly terrible, fomenting us vs. them sentiment when media folks are compelled to express their dismay, and his base gets their outrage porn. 2) he’ll still be terrible in the next debate so that his base gets fed, but slightly less so, which will prompt some in the media to note it publicly as a way to stake their claim as ‘credibly neutral’. the folks who want to vote for white/male privilege can they say, ‘see he’s not that bad…’ 3) in the last debate, he’ll stick to talking points (despite being wildly inaccurate) with some soft ad-libbing (still inaccurate, and likely dishonest), again to feed his base, but the comportment will get media folks to take the bait noting that he looked ‘more presidential’ than in the previous debates. so the words people see floating around as they cast ballots are ‘trump’ and ‘presidential’. i’d love to be wrong – here’s hoping.

    thank you for the coverage, again, Natalie. the words seem small given the task, but are heartfelt.

  5. I regret in repeating some time ago that 45 will not leave regardless of the election outcome. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges had predicted a horrific and bloody winter. I am so worried for people not paying attention.

    • tl;dr: share your concern, but it’s really important that everybody votes, and it’s most effective to use our worry to motivate/encourage/support folks who are tentative about it.

      if everybody votes, it’ll be a lot harder for republicans to keep supporting the political power grab they’ve engaged in. conservatives (fair to say authoritarians at this point) have infrastructure on their side (historically, & buttressed from decades of strategic maneuvering), but they don’t appear to have popular support.

      we have to fight now & bring numbers through the election, that’s our strength; if we don’t, we give strength to the other side. large numbers voting against republicans up & down the ticket decrease their support. a contested government and the ensuing instability works against the world standing the U.S. has enjoyed/exploited. a lot of the administration’s support is based on self preservation, so voting out republicans and diminished world standing works against their ability to hold power.

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