The Commission on Presidential Debates has announced that it will employ mute buttons during tonight’s debate, cutting off President Donald Trump or Vice President Joe Biden if either attempts to interrupt the other’s two-minute speaking time. On the surface, this might seem like an excellent idea: We’ll get to hear more of the candidates’ answers to questions, and less crosstalk, than we did four weeks ago.
But the decision to mute the candidates is a mistake. In choosing the appearance of civility over an honest, open display of the two men’s characters, the commission has failed in the way so many institutions have failed over these past four years: by giving a sheen of normalcy to an utterly dangerous moment and man.
The first debate, held on September 29, was widely agreed to have been a disaster. For 90 minutes, Trump yelled, blustered, attacked, and threw a temper tantrum. Vice President Biden occasionally fired back (I don’t believe a president has ever been told to shut up on live TV before) but the dynamic of the night was clear: President Trump was the bull, and the rest of us were the china shop.
Before the debate had even ended, the idea of a presidential mute button was gaining steam, and it’s easy to see why. What took place in Cleveland four weeks ago was a spectacle and an embarrassment—but it was by no reasonable definition a debate. A few of Trump’s supporters enjoyed that he seemed, to them at least, to be the alpha male in the room. But among those who, regardless of party, believe that American politics ought to have more dignity than a reality show, the display was unconscionable. Biden supporters were particularly concerned, since the debacle robbed their candidate of the chance to discuss his views.