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.