His support crystallized early in the campaign, in parallel with cable news networks often carrying his rallies live. We’re now used to lower-third text in his speeches correcting his false claims in real-time. In mid-to-late 2015, though, that expectation didn’t exist, nor was there a massive database of his past falsehoods that made fact-checking his rhetoric fairly rote. Trump’s demagogic attacks on immigrants echoed a refrain in conservative media even if they didn’t comport with reality — and people tuning in got that rhetoric poured directly into their eyes and ears.
By the general election, the media was wiser to Trump’s game; once he became president, there was an expectation among non-sycophantic outlets that his various speeches and events should be shown only after-the-fact or with qualifiers meant to limit his ability to spread misinformation. Trump infected the discourse in 2015, and by 2017 the media knew enough to apply appropriate shields and keep a generous distance. It wasn’t always able or willing to do so — Trump’s favorite network, Fox News, takes the same precautions with his misinformation as some of its hosts do with the coronavirus — but there was at least a sense that it was necessary.
That’s one of several reasons that Trump hasn’t enjoyed the same roughshod command of the media as he did four years ago. His rallies are by now familiar affairs, of diminished newsworthiness in the same way that the existence of sunny weather in Arizona rarely leads local broadcasts. There are still online shops that carry his rallies regularly without a filter, but thanks to increased wariness, decreased novelty and the constraints of the pandemic, it’s rare that Trump gets a chance to simply riff at millions of Americans without anyone holding him to account.
At least, until Tuesday night.
General-election debates are normally a moment of remarkable austerity in a presidential campaign. All of the riffing and chatter is set aside as the two (or, occasionally, more) candidates struggle with all due sobriety over policy and legislative proposals. In the buffet that is an election, debates are the side salad: the healthy thing you get because you recognize you probably should, even if you don’t relish it. At least in normal times.
This year, it’s easy to expect that the debates will be something distinctly different. Trump is trailing former vice president Joe Biden by a significant margin, and the debates are among the last times he might be able to shift the direction of a largely static race.
More importantly, Tuesday night’s debate is being held on largely friendly turf, without the sort of filters that often impede Trump’s ability to say things that aren’t true. Its host is Fox News’s Chris Wallace, perhaps the most objective possible interlocutor from Trump’s preferred network, but by no means the moderator most likely to hold Trump to account for falsehoods.
In fact, Wallace has said as much.
“One of these two people is going to be the next president of the United States, and my job is to be as invisible as possible,” Wallace said during his regularly programmed show on Sunday. “If I’ve done my job right, at the end of the night people will say: ‘That was a great debate. Who was the moderator?'”
In normal times, that’s an admirable sentiment. But in 2020, it’s like a guard at an art museum suggesting that he will try his best not to be in the way of people carrying paintings out the front door.
Wallace has already made one concession that benefits Trump. The debate is broken out into a number of segments focused on different topics defined by Wallace: the pandemic, the economy and so on.
And then there’s “Race and Violence in Our Cities.” It’s an objectively baffling grouping, tying “race” and “violence” together in the first place and then defining those merged subjects as most important when manifested in urban areas. Race in suburbia and violence in rural areas? Not important. What’s important is all of that violence and, uh, race that’s happening in cities. It’s a framing that fits squarely with Trump’s campaign branding in a way that Biden would be hard-pressed to match. It’s not just that Trump wants to talk about crime and race, it’s that Trump wants to talk about those things in precisely the way that Wallace has suggested they will.
That Wallace has teed up Trump and simultaneously promised to be demure in guiding the conversation is an important consideration because Trump on Tuesday will be offering his commentary to what’s likely to be the largest concentrated group of people he will get between now and the election. In the 12 presidential election campaigns that have included televised debates, the first iteration was the most-watched, according to data from Nielsen.
Tens of millions of people will likely tune in, and Trump will say the things he says without any objective party offering context. This depends on where the viewer is watching, of course; there may still be the sorts of on-screen text correcting the record that some cable networks have deployed. But they still will be broadcasting Trump’s false claims and assertions.
There will be someone else on the stage with Trump and Wallace, of course: Joe Biden. When Wallace was moderating a debate in 2016, he declared that it was up to Trump’s then-opponent, Hillary Clinton, to correct what he said. Fair enough — except that Trump’s willingness (eagerness!) to say false things will necessarily demand that Biden leave some portion of them unaddressed. Or it will mean that all of Biden’s time is spent on rebutting Trump’s claims, meaning much of the conversation would be dominated by the subjects that Trump wants to discuss.
There’s not really a good solution here. Even a proactive moderator can’t spend the entire debate correcting the record, for a variety of reasons. Trump knows this; he’s perfected the approach of flooding the zone with nonsense, knowing that much of it will get through.
Philippe Reines, a former Clinton staffer who served as her opponent in her 2016 practice sessions, offered Biden some advice in an interview with Politico.
“They don’t have opening statements,” Reines suggested, “but I would start with 'I’ve served with and for eight presidents before you, and I never thought I would say this to a president but most of what you hear from him tonight will be false.’”
This gets at the overarching context of the moment. If you understand that President Trump frequently says things that are untrue, that he lies and misleads and misstates, Biden’s warning won’t be necessary. If, on the other hand, you reject the idea that Trump is uniquely prone to falsehood or believe him to be the straight-shooter he claims to be, you’re not going to accept his opponent’s effort at inoculation.
If you’re a viewer who has paid little attention to the contest so far, you mostly need to judge for yourself. In 2016, that very much played to Trump’s advantage.