Trump, Biden Peel Veneer From U.S. Political Façade
WASHINGTON (Dispatches) -- The first presidential debate between President Trump and Joseph Biden unraveled into an ugly melee Tuesday, as Trump hectored and interrupted Biden nearly every time he spoke and the former vice president denounced the president as a "clown” and told him to "shut up.”
In a chaotic, 90-minute back-and-forth, the two major party nominees expressed a level of acrid contempt for each other unheard-of in modern American politics.
Trump, trailing in the polls and urgently hoping to revive his campaign, was plainly attempting to be the aggressor. But he interjected so insistently that Biden could scarcely answer the questions posed to him, forcing the moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, to repeatedly urge the president to let his opponent speak.
"Will you shut up, man?” Biden demanded of Trump at one point in obvious exasperation. "This is so unpresidential.”
Yet Biden also lobbed a series of bitingly personal attacks of his own. "You’re the worst president America has ever had,” he said to Trump.
The president’s bulldozer-style tactics represented a significant risk for an incumbent who’s trailing Biden because voters, including some who supported him in 2016, are so fatigued by his near-daily attacks and outbursts. Yet the former vice president veered between trying to ignore Trump by speaking directly into the camera to the voters, and giving in to temptation by hurling insults at the president. Biden called Trump a liar and a racist.
Trump peppered his remarks with misleading claims and outright lies, predicting that a coronavirus vaccine was imminent when his own chief health advisers say otherwise, claiming that his rollback of fuel-efficiency standards would not increase pollution and insisting that a political adviser, Kellyanne Conway, had not described riots as useful to Trump’s campaign, even though she did so on television.
And even as he went on the offensive against Biden on matters of law and order, Trump declined to condemn white supremacy and right-wing extremist groups when prompted by Wallace and Biden. When Wallace asked him whether he would be willing to do so, Trump replied, "Sure,” and asked the two men to name a group they would like him to denounce.
But when Biden named the Proud Boys, a far-right group, Trump did not do so and even suggested they be at the ready.
"Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by,” the president said, before pivoting to say, "Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.”
Trump again invoked the prospect of a "fraudulent election” and disregarded contrary evidence about mail-in voting offered by both Wallace and Biden. And Trump encouraged his voters to "go into the poll and watch very carefully” for any signs of misconduct — an encouragement that could cause disruption on Election Day.
"Trump’s volcanic performance appeared to be the gambit of a president seeking to tarnish his opponent by any means available, unbounded by norms of accuracy and decorum and unguided by a calculated sense of how to sway the electorate or assuage voters’ reservations about his leadership,” the New York Times wrote.
"In an election marked by sharply defined and stubbornly stable opinions about both candidates, the president’s conduct was the equivalent of pulling the pin on a hand grenade and hoping that the ensuing explosion would harm the other candidate more,” it added.
But Trump made no effort to address his most obvious political vulnerabilities, from his mismanagement of the pandemic to his refusal to condemn right-wing extremism, and it was not clear that he did anything over the course of the evening to appeal to voters who have disliked him, including those who reluctantly supported him four years ago, the paper said.
The debate, at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, quickly descended into name-calling and hectoring in the first 15 minutes, derisive attacks that were extraordinary even by the standards of Trump’s unruly presidency.
When Biden attempted to discuss voters who had lost loved ones to the coronavirus, Trump interjected. "You would’ve lost far more people,” he declared.
The former vice president alternated between smiling and shaking his head in bemusement and firing off attacks of his own as Trump kept interrupting.
In an exceptionally charged moment, Trump spoke dismissively about Biden’s deceased son, Beau, who died from brain cancer in 2015, rejecting an opportunity to show a modicum of personal grace toward his political opponent. Niden alluded to Beau Biden’s military service as he rebuked the president for having reportedly referred to America’s fallen soldiers as "losers.”
Trump answered with a rhetoric roll of the eyes, and began attacking Biden’s other son: "I don’t know Beau; I know Hunter,” he said, proceeding to ridicule Hunter Biden for his business dealings and struggles with drug addiction.
One of the few phases of the debate that might have been taken by an open-minded viewer as an extended and articulate exchange of views came on the subject of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump voiced impatience with a range of public-health restrictions and Biden criticized the president for being dismissive of measures like mask wearing and social distancing.
"If we just wore masks between now — and social distanced — between now and January, we would probably save up to 100,000 lives,” said Biden, who also alluded to the disclosure in the journalist Bob Woodward’s recent book that the president had intentionally misled the American people last winter about the severity of the virus.
Trump, reiterating his demands that the country return to normal, called on Democratic governors to "open these states up” quickly.
But even on a matter as grave as the pandemic, Trump indulged freely in personal mockery. When Biden called him "totally irresponsible” for holding mass rallies without health protections in place, Trump responded by mocking Biden’s more constrained events, suggesting the former vice president would hold large events, too, "if you could get the crowds.” The president, at another point, falsely claimed Biden had finished at the bottom of his college class. "There’s nothing smart about you,” Trump said to his opponent.
Biden at times mocked Trump, recalling at one point the president’s suggestion that people inject disinfectant into their bodies to combat the virus, a gaffe that for a time ended Trump’s daily briefings. "That was said sarcastically,” Trump claimed, though his remarks appeared to be in earnest at the time.
For all his evident frustration with Trump for not abiding by the rules, Wallace made no attempt to correct the president as he unspooled a series of falsehoods. Trump, for example, insisted that Biden had once called criminals "superpredators.” But it was Hillary Clinton who said it, in 1996. And he did not correct Trump when he said Conway did not describe riots as helpful to Trump’s campaign.
In addition to lobbing false allegations, Trump also was unable, or unwilling, to discuss policy issues in a detailed manner. Pressed on whether he believed in climate change, the president said, "I think to an extent yes,” before quickly adding: "We’re planting a billion trees.”