I recapped “Game of Thrones” live for eight straight seasons, and the first clash between Trump and Biden was still one of the wildest things I’ve ever seen on television. As spectacle, it was a lot less fun to watch than dragons and ice zombies. As a source of information, the cross-talk and insults will be a challenge to transcribe, much less to mine for meaningful exchanges. But as far as the future of the country goes, the disastrous style of the evening was as revealing as any single answer the candidates gave on policy.
First was that stunning jab at Biden. Specifically, Trump was suggesting that Biden wouldn’t have the guts to stand up to the left wing of his party, including lawmakers such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who challenged Biden for the Democratic nomination. But “they’re going to dominate you” is a purer expression of Trump’s worldview and campaign strategy than “Make America Great Again” ever was.
That showed in his debating style, which married Trump’s instinct for domination with his total lack of self-control. Trump talked over Biden. Trump talked over the moderator, Fox News’s Chris Wallace. Trump accused Biden of being dumb and tried to accuse him of cowardice for taking precautions to avoid catching or spreading the novel coronavirus, saying Biden “could be speaking 200 feet away and he shows up wearing the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.” And he repeatedly tried to throw Biden off by attacking his surviving son, Hunter, who has struggled with drug abuse.
Theoretically, order ought to be a calming response to Trump’s pure chaos. And there were fleeting moments when Wallace was able to impose that order and Biden was able to project it. Biden’s strongest moment of the debate was when he ended an ugly exchange by looking directly into the camera and reminding voters, “This is not about my family or his family, it’s about your family. ... He doesn’t want to talk about what you need.”
But Trump exerts a gravitational field so strong that it’s hard for even the most disciplined person to avoid being drawn in by it. Even if he’s defeated in November, this debate demonstrated why it will take longer for the country to recover from Trump’s influence.
Take Wallace, who utterly failed at the job assigned to him, which was to make the president behave like a normal human for 90 minutes. Wallace tried appealing to his formal authority, telling the president, "I’m the moderator of this debate, and I would like you to let me ask my question.” He tried appeasement, assuring Trump, “You’ll be happy,” and “Mr. President, you’re going to be very happy” in an effort to get the president to stay quiet long enough to allow him to get a question out.
In a sign of how tiring the evening was to be, Wallace even tried world-weariness early on, saying, “Covid-19, which is an awfully serious subject, so let’s try to be serious about it.” Eventually, Wallace essentially acknowledged the futility of his job, telling Trump, “If you want to switch seats, we can do that.”
Respectable conservatives can restate their values and commitment to the rules all they want, but, president or not, Trump has been hugely influential on a generation of candidates and voters. Wallace’s flailing efforts to conduct a normal debate are just a preview of how difficult it will be to return any semblance of normality to Republican politics.
If Wallace represented the limits of a genteel effort to reassert the rules, Biden’s response showed how difficult it is to resist playing Trump’s game.
Trump routinely says things so breathtaking that the experience of watching him debate is a little like having an asthma attack. Biden didn’t descend to Trumpian levels: His personal elevator doesn’t go that far. Still, it was unsettling to see Biden, who likes to quote Seamus Heaney, snapping, “Keep yapping, man," or “It’s hard to get any word in with this clown. Excuse me, this person.” It’s hard not to feel a little poisoned just by exposure to Trump. Biden may have to be on stage with the man; the rest of us have been made angrier and rawer even at a distance.
This debate, mercifully, ended at close to its scheduled time. But it was hard to feel much relief when it was over. “This is not going to end well,” Trump said of the forthcoming election. It may have been the truest thing he said all night.