Pity the poor closed-caption writers. Pity the poor ASL interpreters. But most of all, pity poor us, the American electorate.
Tonight was the first presidential debate of the 2020 election, and if there is any sense or mercy left in this nation, it will be the last too. The event was a shambolic shout fest, with scarcely a single morsel of substance to be found. President Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, lied repeatedly, refused to condemn racist groups even after explicitly offering to do so, and sought to undermine trust in the election. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democrat, meandered through his positions, only occasionally finishing a sentence. Moderator Chris Wallace lost control within minutes and never regained it.
Voters who tuned in hoping to learn something new about either man’s plans for the country, or about his character, must have realized early on that they were in the wrong place. The three septuagenarians onstage were speaking over one another within minutes. Trump interrupted Biden; Biden interrupted Trump; Wallace tried to interrupt both, with limited efficacy, especially against Trump, with whom he at one point offered to switch seats.
The president entered the debate most in need of a big night, given that he consistently trails in polls. There is no doubt that he dominated the stage, as was clearly his plan coming in. Whether that actually benefits him is another question. His most effective moment of the night came in a broadside against Biden on the issue of “law and order.” But several months of hard experience show that Americans are appalled by Trump’s handling of racial justice and protests. The president keeps coming back to the issue, hoping it will break through. Perhaps this is the night it will—but don’t place money on it.