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.