The First Presidential Debate Was Completely Nuts

Last night’s debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump was a ninety-minute stream of consciousness that pitted a mediocre-at-best challenger to a raving, dangerous reactionary. Were we expecting anything different?

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace in Cleveland, Ohio. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

For those who managed to sit through the whole thing, the first of three presidential debates will probably be remembered less as a series of discrete moments than as a beleaguered and bewildered state of mind.

Throughout ninety painful minutes, the men competing to lead the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation, Joe Biden and (more often) Donald Trump, hectored and shouted while moderator Chris Wallace tried (and usually failed) to reassert control. Dignity proved a scarce commodity as Trump and Biden talked over one another, Trump leaned further into unhinged reactionary appeals, and a performance embarrassing for everyone involved.

Though Wallace did pose a series of issue-based questions, answers tended to come out in streams of consciousness that quickly pivoted away from whatever issue was supposedly at hand. While Biden was not particularly lucid, the disruptive (and more disturbing) presence was invariably Trump, who interrupted so often that neither his opponent nor the moderator could get a word in edgeways.

In a sense, the debate was thus an accurate reflection of American politics in their current state: demoralizing, disorienting, and entirely revolving around the personality of the president. Trump interjected so often that many of the exchanges hastily devolved into shouting matches, knocking Biden off his kilter and forcing him to respond to whatever was being said. And while Biden was uninspiring, Trump’s interventions were, unsurprisingly, insane.

All in all, the whole thing proved so off the rails that much of it already seems to elude description — the few miserable, memorable moments belonging to the president. In one particularly sinister exchange, Wallace asked Trump to condemn white supremacist groups only for him to reply, unprompted: “The Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by,” referring to the violent far-right group founded by reactionary broadcaster Gavin McInnes. Near the debate’s end, Trump also did his utmost to sow disinformation about mail-in ballots and refused to commit to conceding in the event he faces defeat on November 3.

The silver lining, if there is one, is that last night’s debate probably changed very few minds. Most of the voting electorate is already committed one way or the other, with the Democratic candidate enjoying the advantage. A CBS poll conducted beforehand, for example, found that only 6 percent of likely voters watching the debate were doing so because they remained undecided — a post-debate YouGov survey mapping quite neatly onto the national polling average.

All told, last night’s debate was a gong show of epic proportions that illuminated little, probably changed few if any minds, and pitted a mediocre-at-best challenger against a raving reactionary. Then again, what did we expect?