Jake Tapper, chief Washington correspondent for CNN, probably got it in one when he described last night’s presidential debate: “That was a hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a trainwreck,” he summarised. “The worst debate I have ever seen – in fact, it wasn’t even a debate. It was a disgrace.”
So, what exactly went so wrong? For those who weren’t tuned in to the 90-minute showdown between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the first of three debates before the US election in November, here are the key takeaways from the night.
From the start, it was clear Trump’s main objective was to rattle Biden, by interrupting the former vice-president as often as he could. By CBS News’s count, Trump spoke over Biden a whopping 73 times (and interrupted the moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, nearly as much).
During a series of pretty chaotic exchanges – including Trump questioning Biden’s intelligence and Biden calling Trump a “clown”, a “racist” and “the worst president America has ever had” – Biden lost his temper, shushing his opponent and exclaiming, “Will you shut up, man?” This statement arguably summed up the night: this morning, sweatshirts branded with the slogan were already available to purchase on Instagram.
The dominant issue in Washington right now is Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to replace Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died earlier this month. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that it was the first subject to come up during the debate.
Coney Barrett, a federal appellate judge and Notre Dame law professor, is backed by the far right because of her writings on faith and the law. Many of her critics on the left fear she will be the catalyst for setbacks on abortion, healthcare and more, saying she will undo much of RBG’s work in championing gender equality.
Trump backed his choice, saying he was right to nominate her before the election. Biden refused to criticise Coney Barrett, saying that “she seems like a very fine person”– but did argue that her nomination put the future of Obamacare and the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade “on the ballot.”
When Wallace announced that the next topic of debate would be the coronavirus, Biden joked: “Good luck with that.” Trump has been eager to divert attention away from the pandemic in recent weeks, as it becomes evident voters feel he’s mismanaged the situation.
But when his hand was forced, he outlined no real strategy, instead teasing Biden for wearing a mask and claiming that, under a Biden presidency, many more Americans – two million, rather than the current 200,000 – would have died. He also explained away his past comments on injecting bleach as a cure for coronavirus as sarcastic.
In the end, actual answers to questions about the pandemic were lost in Trump’s bombastic delivery – which may have been the president’s goal.
The death of George Floyd earlier this year and the resulting conversations about institutional racism in the US led to history-making mass demonstrations, protests and riots. Biden accused the president of encouraging racist divisions, while Trump hit back with a reference to Biden’s support for a 1993 anti-crime bill that led to higher incarceration rates for Black people.
The jaw-dropping moment, however, was when Trump was offered the chance by Wallace to denounce right-wing violence from white supremacist groups. Instead, he told one far-right group, the Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by.” Today, the organisation is said to be celebrating his response. Trump then went on to attack antifa, a loose collection of anti-fascist activists.
For his part, Biden repeatedly and directly called Trump a racist. He has tried to walk a narrow political line in recent weeks, supporting peaceful protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, while expressing his disapproval of violence.
Not all the baffling and erratic moments of last night came courtesy of Trump, however. When fending off an attack that the far left was pulling his party towards socialism, Biden responded with: “I am the Democratic party right now.” But when the president later asked why Biden couldn’t stop the riots in Democratic controlled cities, Biden’s defence was that he didn’t hold an elected office.
He also revealed that he didn’t support the Green New Deal, a programme embraced by many on the left, which left Trump smirking: “Oh, you don’t? Well, that’s a big statement.”
The New York Times has pointed out that Trump managed to get through this entire debate without telling the American people what he would do in a second term. Biden, though he took several opportunities to speak directly to the camera, and to voters, sometimes became flustered by Trump’s overblown and hectoring style and rarely gave concrete details and facts. Both men seemed, at times, more interested in fighting with each other than representing their policies. As The Times put it: “The clearest loser from the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was America.”