Last night’s presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden started off placidly enough, with each candidate delivering a measured, coherent answer to a question about the current Supreme Court vacancy. That sense of coherence lasted about five minutes.
What followed was shambolic—a disorienting, exasperating medley of half-thoughts, interjections, raised voices, and simultaneous monologues broken up occasionally by brief periods of uninterrupted speech. Instead of a dignified discussion of matters of national import and an opportunity to get some reassurance about the future during a deeply destabilizing year, the country was subjected to what felt like a toxic, drawn-out family dispute gone off the rails.
The debate’s format allowed for lengthy periods of “open discussion,” which turned out to be a euphemism for aimless bickering. Trump frequently took that openness as an invitation to create conversational logjams while Biden, and sometimes Chris Wallace, the moderator and Fox News anchor, tried to speak through the president’s constant interruptions. The whole affair seemed like a microcosm of America’s disjointed national discourse, as the vectors of communication broke down entirely: On multiple occasions, all three men were talking at once, and at one point Wallace was addressing Trump, Trump was addressing Biden, and Biden was addressing the viewers at home.
To help make sense of this dysfunctional triangle of communication, I consulted with some therapists who have experience helping families and couples through conflict. “There was certainly nothing worth modeling from that debate except how not to have a constructive conversation,” said Joshua Coleman, a psychologist in the Bay Area and the author of the forthcoming Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict. One unconstructive habit he observed, of which he thought Trump was the “main offender,” was interrupting others. Coleman said that this “demonstrates a disinterest in responding to what is being said” and is “more an act of domination than healthy dialogue.”
Similarly, Ian Kerner, a marriage and sex therapist in New York, told me that the debate felt to him like “the kind of bad couple-therapy session that I have nightmares about.” As he watched, he saw an abundance of “criticism, contempt, denial, and stonewalling”—a set of corrosive behaviors that the psychologists John and Julie Gottman refer to as “the four horsemen,” heralding doom for a relationship. When people practice these habits, Kerner said, “defensive postures calcify; emotional safety is destroyed; qualities like empathy, trust, and hope are extinguished; and a relationship becomes a battlefield.”
“Most of these strategies were on full display from both candidates, but much more so from Trump,” he said. “I think that Biden could have gotten to a place to have a real conversation, but you can’t do that when you’re under attack … Biden turning away from Trump to speak to the American people reminded me of when patients turn to me because they can no longer converse with their partner.”
Jacqueline Hudak, a couple and family therapist in Philadelphia who trains psychiatry residents at the University of Pennsylvania, told me that as she watched the debate, she identified with Wallace as he struggled to manage the argument unfolding before him. “When families engage in the type of communication displayed in the debate, it serves to maintain emotional distance [and a] lack of connection and understanding, and does not lead to resolution or healing,” she said.
Perhaps resolution or healing is too much to ask of a presidential debate, which lends itself to declarations of winners and losers. But the purpose of a debate is ostensibly to inform voters about the candidates’ stances on consequential issues, and in that sense, last night’s televised conflict was a complete disservice. Trump and Biden were disrespectful to each other, but they were even more disrespectful to everyone who had the misfortune of watching along at home.
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