Trump’s Interruptions Had a Double Message

The president’s favorite debate tactic was a foundational form of disrespect—levied against his opponent as well as the nation.

Trump's mouth and an audio wave
Getty / The Atlantic

There’s a story that Donald Trump tells, in The Art of the Deal, about playing with his brother Robert when they were kids. Each boy had his own set of blocks. Then Donald decided—in a whim that he suggests portended his future career—to turn the toys into a real-estate property. “I ended up using all of my blocks, and then all of his, and when I was done, I’d created a beautiful building,” Trump writes. “I liked it so much that I glued the whole thing together. And that was the end of Robert’s blocks.”

I thought of that story last night, as President Trump, having long since graduated to other forms of perfidy, met former Vice President Joe Biden in an event that was sold as a “debate” but was in practice one more parable about Trump’s great appetite for destruction. Over the course of the event, the president refused, once again, to condemn white supremacists. He told a far-right group known to engage in armed violence at protests to “stand back, and stand by.” He insulted Hunter Biden, before a national audience, to the father of Hunter Biden. As usual, Trump weaponized his words. But he also wreaked havoc through the words that were not said: Trump interrupted both Joe Biden and the event’s moderator, Chris Wallace, at nearly every turn. He used this rare moment of mass attention not to communicate with a weary public, but instead to sow empty chaos. He filibustered his own debate. The whole thing was a “shitshow,” CNN’s Dana Bash said, correctly. It was an insult to the memory of the more than 200,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19. It was an insult to the Americans who took time out of their hectic lives to listen to the men who seek to lead them. It was Donald Trump, taking the building blocks of a democracy and making them unusable for anyone else.

Interruption is such a familiar form of disrespect. To be interrupted—in a meeting, in a casual conversation, on a presidential-debate stage—is to be told, with blunt efficiency, that your voice is not as important as the voice of the person who is talking over you. It is to be informed, through the prevention of the words you are trying to utter, that you matter just a little bit less. Welcome to the club, Joe and Chris. The water’s warm, and deeply condescending. Many women, last night, remarked on the ugly intimacy of it all. (Hillary Clinton—who was interrupted by Trump 51 times during a single presidential debate in 2016—was one of them.) But Trump, while he was interrupting Biden and Wallace, was also interrupting the notion of debate itself. He was rejecting the rules he had agreed to. This was one of Donald Trump’s defining traits—his conviction that the rules, whether they relate to taxes or debate questions or human decency, do not apply to him—playing out in real time. “President Trump acted as the abuser tonight,” MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace (no relation) said, “and Chris Wallace was among the abused.”

In that sense, the interruptions worked as their own empty messages. Much of Trump’s speech doubles as promises made to the people inclined to admire him: You, too, could be rich, or pretend to be. You, too, can insult other people and dismiss their indignation as political correctness. You, too, can do what you want, when you want, because you have defined political freedom as social impunity. So Trump’s bulldozing and steamrolling had a certain inverse eloquence. The interruptions broke the rules of the debate, and delighted in the breaking. They gratified Trump’s delusions of dominance. They spoke to Americans who share Trump’s conviction that destruction is a means to power.

And through the interruptions, the president attempted to change the terms of the debate itself, from the words that were spoken to the words that were not. Shortly after the event concluded, the Trump-campaign-led Twitter account @TrumpWarRoom tweeted,

Chris Wallace only interrupted Joe Biden 15 times.

Wallace interrupted President Trump 76 times! #Debates2020

The account did not mention that Trump was the evening’s interrupter in chief. What it did do, though, was suggest that interruption itself was the appropriate metric for assessing the debate’s outcome. It tried to turn the event into another allegory of media bias—in this case, a Fox News anchor’s favoring the Democratic candidate. This was another way of breaking the rules.

I could feel Wallace’s helplessness, in the face of all this, pulsing through the TV screen. And I could feel the familiar frustration of not being heard—of realizing that the conversation you think you’re a part of is not a conversation at all, but a monologue that has been aimed in your general direction. “You’re going to have—gentlemen!” Wallace said at one point, driven to self-interruption as crosstalk overtook the debate. (He added: “I hate to raise my voice!”) At another point: “The country would be better served if we allow both people to speak with fewer interruptions. I’m appealing to you to do that.” At another: “Mr. President. Your campaign agreed that both sides would get two-minute answers, uninterrupted … Why don’t you observe what your campaign agreed to as a ground rule?”

But Wallace knew why. Many of those watching knew why. If you have no words to offer, absent words become a strategy. If you have nothing to add to the conversation, you might try to exit the conversation. A democracy is, at its core, a discussion; the person leading this one is failing even at the level of dialogue itself. At the end of the evening, the pollster Frank Luntz convened a focus group of independent voters from swing states. He asked them to sum up the performances of each candidate using only one word or phrase. Among the assessments the voters offered of Biden were “better than expected,” “definitely more professional than Trump,” “competent,” “coherent,” “leader,” “attentive and rehearsed,” “showed restraint and compassion,” “humanity and integrity,” “predictable,” “presidential.” Among the reactions they offered for Trump: “horrid,” “chaotic,” “unpolished,” “unhinged,” “bully,” “arrogant,” and “un-American.”