By Jeremy Lovelett
Tuesday’s presidential debate disintegrated into bitter chaos after a handful of minutes. President Donald Trump fostered fear and lies about violence and voting, often trampling past his time allotment to pepper insults at former Vice President Joe Biden, who generally maintained a baseline of decorum, despite asking in exasperation, “Will you shut up, man?” Fox News moderator Chris Wallace failed to temper the evening’s cascading verbiage. He allowed Trump to talk over his own questions and heckle Biden almost constantly. The unhinged embarrassment to democracy may have benefited from Wallace and his team controlling the candidates’ microphones.
CNN’s Dana Bash accurately characterized the evening as a “shit show.” So it was, not only in conduct, but in content, as the candidates’ talking points often failed to fully address the need for improved policy or downright encouraged violence and extremism.
“Race and Violence” and Biden’s Missteps
Chris Wallace’s debate topic Race and Violence in Our Cities rang alarm bells for Nathalie Baptiste of Mother Jones. Grouping race with violence didn’t encourage a “conversation about the persistence of racial injustice in this country,” but it did give Trump a chance to “lean into his racist narrative about this country and recite his greatest racist hits.”
Trump took the opportunity, reasoning that Black people should vote for him because “law enforcement loves him.” He cited the White House’s plan to cancel critical race theory education because it’s “racist,” and warned that Biden “would allow low-income people to invade the suburbs.”
Biden countered by falsely saying the suburbs are already diverse and integrated—the former Vice President has a poor history with race relations, including his 1994 crime bill. Biden also caved on Trump’s “law and order” rallying cry, saying he’s in favor of “Law and order with justice where people get treated fairly.” But the latest shootings of Black people and protesters against injustice show that, to conservatives, “law and order” represents a call to maintain the racial hierarchy. Ignoring a summer of organized police brutality, Biden cited a few “bad apples” in police departments that need to be held accountable.
Shifting to the coronavirus pandemic, Biden rightfully pointed out the Trump administration’s failure to address the disproportionate infection and death rates among Black Americans. But he failed to capture the magnitude of disparity: Black Americans have suffered 21% of the nation’s COVID-19 death toll, even though they make up 12% of the nation’s population.
For Truthout, William Rivers Pitt defies any critic of Biden’s performance “to get through any simple recitation [on stage] with someone like Trump standing a few feet away interrupting every other sentence with frantic bellowed lies.” Though his patience was admirable, Biden avoided the Green New Deal amid mounting climate catastrophes like the west coast wildfires. He also failed to emphasize how systemic racism is killing Black people through healthcare, the environment, and law enforcement. Instead, “he chose to go haring off after his own sense of victimhood as a white Catholic,” tiptoeing on “racial insensitivity” instead of talking injustice.
Still, “these disappointments from Biden wither to ash before the blast furnace of Donald Trump’s brazen, shameless, racist fascism.”
“Stand Back and Stand By”
During Wallace’s debate topic conflating racial issues with “violence in our cities,” the moderator called on the president to denounce white supremacy. From the wreckage of verbal collision, Trump can be heard asking who to condemn as Biden and Wallace name white supremacists and the Proud Boys, a white supremacist organization classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. Trump instead issued a call to action to the Proud Boys: “stand back and stand by.” He suggested the left and antifa are more to blame for acts of violence, though this “directly contradicted Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which considers violence from right-wing groups the greatest terrorist threat to the United States at this time.”
Even Fox News personalities criticized the “non-response.” But the Proud Boys were ecstatic. Though they’re banned from Facebook and Twitter, their public Telegram channels erupted with praise for Trump’s nod with comments such as “Stand by!!! PROUD BOYS ARE HEROES!!!” on a large channel. A major group quickly updated its logo to include the president’s words emblazoned around it.
On Democracy Now!, Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi who now leads the Free Radicals Project, a group focused on helping people disengage from violent extremism, described Trump’s words as clear encouragement for continued violence from far-right groups. But Trump’s refusal to condemn far-right violence has been a staple of his presidency, recently with QAnon, and previously with the Charlottesville, Virginia, attacks. The tacit endorsement aligns with his strategy to appeal to what he imagines as his paramilitary base of support. His words could embolden and galvanize extremists, who already significantly populate law enforcement and the military.
Trump undermined the upcoming election by calling it rigged and maintaining that mail-in ballots are especially susceptible to fraud—there’s no evidence of this. At the end of the blundersome 90 minutes, he encouraged his supporters to watch polls “very carefully.” Though poll watching is legal to some extent in some states, his remarks “went well beyond a call for legally sanctioned and qualified election observers.”
Ignoring Wallace’s question about accepting the election results, Trump complained that poll watchers were thrown out of Philadelphia offices. As the Philadelphia Inquirer pointed out, there were many reasons for this: no Trump campaign members had been approved as watchers, no polling places are currently open, and officials are adhering to COVID-19 safety measures. Thursday morning, the Trump campaign requested that Philadelphia immediately allow them to appoint poll watchers at early-voting centers.
Writers for Columbia Journalism Review cringed when a New York Times alert asked “Who won the debate?” This frame lost all value after the president’s “manic and abusive” performance, and media shouldn’t try to impose normality upon it; “There was no debate.” Dana Bash was right to call it a “shit show” on CNN, as was Rachel Maddow on MSNBC when she questioned the “very notion of a post-debate discussion, given what had just happened.” They’re on the right track, unlike a bevy of newspapers that likened Biden’s attempt to follow a coherent debate structure to Trump’s assault of interruption and insult. Even the Times showed it could eschew both-sides-ism with another headline: “TRUMP’S HECKLES SEND FIRST DEBATE INTO UTTER CHAOS.”
It’s possible the remaining debates will not become “more normal.” Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo writes, “This is who Trump is. It is especially who he is under threat.” But steps towards a successful evening should involve a Biden more willing to engage with intersecting issues of racial injustice, moderators who demand coherent discussion, and a mute button.