President Donald Trump’s grand plan to demolish Joe Biden at tonight’s first presidential debate was shockingly simple: He merely wouldn’t let the former vice president complete a sentence.
Trump talked over his Democratic challenger—and the frustrated moderator, Chris Wallace—from the opening moments of the debate, bullying Biden with a barrage of personal attacks (“There’s nothing smart about you, Joe”) and outright lies. The night quickly devolved into a cacophony of crosstalk, a barely watchable sniping match between two old men. “Gentlemen, you realize you’re both speaking at the same time,” Wallace pleaded at one point, to little effect.
But if Trump’s strategy—such at it was—seemed familiar, that’s because it was the same one he deployed against Hillary Clinton four years ago, and utilizes in his near-daily sparring with reporters as president. His default mode is to bully, and he famously hates to share the spotlight—even when the format of a one-on-one debate demands that he does. Arguably, it’s been effective enough so far. Though Clinton was judged the winner of the 2016 debates, and rose in the polls afterward, Trump won the election. His bulldoze-the-establishment style clearly had some appeal to some voters.
The question is whether the president’s act wears as well now that he’s the incumbent, and at a moment when a deadly virus has ravaged the country and tanked the economy. The polls suggest it does not; Biden is leading Trump nationally and in the decisive battleground states, and there are fewer undecided voters now than at this time four years ago. The former vice president has bet his entire campaign that the nation is tired of Trump’s shtick. Bowing to the coronavirus pandemic, Biden has forgone traditional campaign rallies and door-to-door canvassing. He’s been content to let Trump hang himself, to keep the focus on an unpopular incumbent and his failures in office.
That task was trickier tonight. Biden at first seemed shaky in parrying Trump’s attempt at dominance, unsure of how to handle him. He soon decided to respond to Trump’s unrelenting attacks and interruptions with a simple smile and a laugh—a reaction that implied a shared bond with viewers at home. “I’m not here to call out his lies. Everybody knows he’s a liar,” Biden said at one point.
Still, Trump talked—and talked, and talked, and talked. He wore down Biden and Wallace, and he might have even worn down the voters. When the debate had exhausted its scheduled 90 minutes, Wallace struggled to cut Trump off just so he could end it. Perhaps that was the point of the president’s barrage, to tear down the already-rickety tradition of the presidential debates just as he’s trying to sow doubt in the integrity of the election itself. Trump’s refusal to play by the debate rules created something of a fog, preventing a coherent back-and-forth that might allow people to decide which man has the better vision for the country. And if voters tune out, Trump reasons, maybe they won’t turn out.
Yet Trump has spent months now telling anyone who will listen that the election is rigged, that mail ballots are a recipe for fraud. For now, many Americans appear to be ignoring him. More than 1 million have already cast their ballot, and voters have flooded state election offices with requests for ballots at an unprecedented clip.
About 20 minutes into tonight’s debate, Biden finally got in a clear, uninterrupted rejoinder to the filibustering president. “Will you shut up, man?” In an evening devoid of much substance to that point, it was the line of the night—the exasperated plea of a man tired of being yelled at and, Biden hopes, the sentiment of a nation that’s ready to move on.