But even with each candidate silenced for two minutes per segment, the whole thing proved too overwhelming for late-night host Stephen Colbert. Hours later, he argued that the real highlight of the night was that he would “never have to watch Donald Trump debate ever again.”
“It’s like dental surgery, and tonight was like getting our last wisdom tooth taken out,” Colbert said during his monologue on “The Late Show,” which was briefly interrupted by an incessantly yapping Photoshopped president. “Yes, it hurt, and yes, we can still taste the blood in our mouths.”
As the mute button’s use — or apparent lack thereof — dominated much online reaction to the debates, he and other late-night hosts said it fell short. The only effective mute button for the president, they seemed to suggest, was one that would have silenced Trump entirely.
When the electronic muting was announced earlier this week by the Commission on Presidential Debates, the public welcomed the news with a mixture of cheer and uncertainty. Many celebrated the idea that both Trump and Biden would be prevented from repeating their acrimonious sparring in Cleveland on Sept. 29.
But Colbert himself noted that one candidate in particular had, over the course of the campaign, jeered and interrupted far more often than the other. Trump was responsible for at least 128 such moments at the first debate, according to a Slate tally, far more than the “dozens” of interruptions by Biden.
“Why are we pretending this is for both of them? The rule only applies to one guy,” the host asked in his monologue. His segment called the debate the “Pursuit to Mute the Brute.”
Trump, whose campaign had repeatedly opposed any debate changes earlier this fall, himself seemed to argue that the mute button was meant to target him, in particular. He slammed the commission in an interview with “Fox & Friends” on Tuesday, pointing out that his mic had been “oscillated” during the 2016 presidential debates and falsely claiming that the commission offered him an apology.
Trump has such an inclination for the sort of aggressive sparring that the button was meant to cut out, Jimmy Kimmel joked before the debate, that a silencing mechanism might not even be effective.
“Would a mute button even work on Donald Trump?” Kimmel asked. “I feel like, if you turn off his microphone, he’ll just pull another one out of his hair or something.”
At the outset of the event, moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News made the ground rules clear: Each candidate would get two minutes of uninterrupted time to answer one of her questions, during which their opponent would be muted by a debate official offstage.
For many viewers, it was refreshing. Together with Welker’s well-received performance in the moderator’s chair, the mute button brought some civility back to the event and refocused the debate on policy issues. Even if it wasn’t a standard part of a presidential debate, it worked.
But after such a bitter and polarizing campaign season, many viewers on the left seemed to want even more of a muzzle. Either they had not really been paying attention to Welker’s introduction, or the rules did not seem to matter.
“What the hell happened to the mute button?” asked actress Rosie Perez, a noted Trump critic.
“I was promised a mute button and a 10:30 end time,” said New York magazine writer Rebecca Traister, as the whole thing ran a few minutes over.
“Instead of the mute button, someone hit the laugh track,” Jimmy Fallon said on “The Tonight Show” before playing a clip of Trump declaring that he was “the least racist person” inside Belmont University’s Curb Event Center.
As Colbert pointed out later in his monologue Thursday night, Trump is the kind of media-savvy candidate who made an unlikely political rise to the White House precisely by ensuring that he remained in the spotlight — that he always had the mic.
To finish, Colbert noted that one of the president’s last remarks at the debate, in which he said asylum-seeking migrants were murderers and rapists, resembled one of the very first of his 2016 campaign.
“Trump’s closing with the line he opened this entire nightmare with,” Colbert noted, playing the famous clip in which he descended a gold escalator at Trump Tower before announcing his presidential bid.
Then, turning to face the camera directly, the late-night host gestured to the early-voting figures that have shattered records in many states.
“Americans have a tough choice to make now,” he said. “Do they vote for Joe Biden on November 3 or do they vote for him early? Because the ultimate mute button is in your hands.”