The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The first debate was one of the worst moments in television history

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and President Trump argued against each other in a tense debate on Sept. 29. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Tuesday night’s debate between President Trump and Joe Biden was a low point for television, for politics, for America — 95 minutes of proof that the nation has slipped into irredeemable darkness.

It was some of the worst TV that the country should ever have to see; years from now, I expect to see it ranked alongside terrorist attacks, space shuttle explosions and erroneous Oscar announcements. The blame for this goes to the president, who I’m sure believes he did a wonderful job, but who, in fact, debased the medium that made him.

One candidate, Biden, came prepared to debate; the president came with only the intent to disrupt the event, impervious to any attempt by an often helpless moderator, “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace, to conduct an actual discourse. Trump’s lone asset (besides a bronzer glow-up to a bizarre shade of crayon that isn’t yet included in the box) was the energy and ferocity with which he interrupted Biden’s attempts to answer.

Trump delivered a constant, unhinged and fulsome pelting of dubious examples, strange retorts, immature insults and outright lies. (In other words, the full set list.) In the face of such noise, Biden’s answers tended to stray as the candidate struggled to keep track of what was happening — believing, to no great effect, that he could counteract some of it by shaking his head, smiling and chuckling at the absurdity of it all.

[Perspective: Chris Wallace tried — and failed — to control Trump. Something needs to change.]

At home, we weren’t chuckling or shrugging at the absurdity of all. Many of us were screaming at our TVs, engorged as we are on the facts, the outrage and the clapbacks we’ve mastered in these low, endlessly combative years. Once or twice, Wallace served as a sturdy cross-examiner of both men, but his reliance on simple decorum (and the notion that he could keep either candidate on topic) was overrun by the president’s rudeness.

What Wallace needed most was an on-off switch for Trump’s microphone. It’s the only way (along with turning off Trump’s camera while Biden is talking) to have a broadcast that looks even halfway like a debate. Trump, of course, wants everything to look like chaos. He’s running on the hope that he can make the entire process — not just the counting of votes — look like a fiasco.

If further TV debates are to continue as scheduled (although the time has come to ask why they should), the organizers and moderators need to install a means to restrict the president’s ability to keep talking. Just shut him up when it’s not his turn. (Shut. Him. Up. . . . Shut. Him. Up.) Without such a device, and with a president who cannot act like a human being, what’s the point of going on?

What we saw Tuesday night was a travesty — but not a surprise. The whole election cycle has become an exercise in dread, filled with dreadful stops along the way.

Viewers at home are anxious, depressed and beyond fried. Not one word in the debate, from either candidate, made you want to get out of bed Wednesday morning. November has now found its way inside the house, just as you knew it always would. It’s in the closet, breathing. It’s under the bed. The inexorable aspect of it all feels like it may very well kill us.

The hours leading up to the debate on Tuesday were a wash; you tried to get some work done and only ended up thinking gloomy thoughts about the night’s coming debate. You tried to do a few yoga stretches before dinner and ended up staring at the wall. You made dinner and ate most of it, and then wondered, barely five minutes into the debate, if you might barf it up.

[Trump incessantly interrupts and insults Biden as they spar in acrimonious first debate]

The president was given opportunities to denounce electoral chaos, racism and white supremacy and did not, choosing instead to tell members of the right-wing group Proud Boys to “stand back” and then adding for ominous flavor “and stand by,” making clear that he already doubts the election outcome, and once more imploring his followers to show up at polling places and appoint themselves as guardians of freedom. Biden let a lot of easy openings pass by — and how could he not? He was a man doing battle against disproportionate indecency, with a moderator who never had a hope of controlling the debate.

And when it was over, you felt worse than you expected to feel. You weren’t alone. In the aftermath, the cable news folks tried to collect themselves into something intelligibly aghast.

On MSNBC, Brian Williams paraphrased the writer Cormac McCarthy: “If that wasn’t a mess, it’ll do until the mess gets here.” His colleague Rachel Maddow seemed more stricken: “It feels like a choice between a type of civil, normal politics, where they do have rules . . . and what this incumbent is promising, which is a monstrous, unintelligible display of logorrhea.” On Fox News, GOP political consultant Karl Rove gleefully pointed out that Biden’s “tell” (that is, when he’s getting flustered) is the use of “man.” (As in “Will you shut up, man?”) On CNN, Anderson Cooper called Trump “obesely immoral. . . . There’s not a moral fiber in this man,” and former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), there to cheer on the president, admitted that Trump “overplayed his hand tonight.”

At some point, America had to go to bed. But how to sleep after seeing something so hideous, so wrong, so evident of how far we’ve fallen? One Advil PM would not do; even two might not be enough. But any more than that and what are you really thinking about yourself, and the future of society, and your willingness to see it through?

Eyes closed anyhow, you kept seeing the backdrop behind Trump and Biden as they yelled over each other. It was one of those dumb set pieces TV loves to build, part of the Declaration of Independence, turned into wallpaper. Cropped as it was into the frame, it mostly read as fragmented jibberish. It was fitting decor, representing what the live televised debate has now become — an explosion of meaninglessness.