It is hard to imagine that anyone but the most obdurate of partisans could have watched the spectacle and thought, Gee, wouldn’t it be great to have four more years of this?
But on a more fundamental level, Trump showed an uncharacteristic lack of pretense.
In what is likely to be remembered as the debate’s most illuminating moment, the president laid bare the devil’s bargain that he has been willing to make with racism in this country to achieve his ends.
Asked if he was willing to condemn white supremacists, and one far-right militia group in particular, the president balked and instead delivered what sounded like a call to arms if he loses the election.
“Proud Boys,” Trump declared, “stand back and stand by.”
Unsurprisingly, the extremist group quickly rallied behind Trump’s call as a new slogan on social media. Its main account on the platform Parler posted video of Trump’s statement and its own response: “YES SIR, PROUD BOYS STANDING BY.”
Joe Biden spoke for the rest of us when he at one point blurted out: “Will you shut up, man? This is so unpresidential.”
Granted, this was not Biden’s finest hour either. He failed to achieve the most fundamental mission for a challenger, which is to present a vision of the alternate direction in which he would take the country.
Then again, it is hard to blame the former vice president, who had assumed that he was showing up for a debate, not a shipwreck. For the most part, Biden retained his composure. He in no way resembled the doddering and feeble old man that Trump and his compatriots have sought to portray him as.
Biden also resisted Trump’s efforts to align him with the more liberal members of his party and positions that fall to the left of where most Americans are on issues such as health care. “I am the Democratic Party right now,” Biden said. “The platform of the Democratic Party is what I, in fact, approved of.”
The moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, failed to bring any semblance of order or decorum. Wallace is normally a sharp and tough interviewer, but from start to finish, Trump’s id was manning the controls.
Polling both nationally and in battleground states suggests that Biden is on a glide path to victory Nov. 3, or whenever it is that the votes are finally counted. If Trump’s performance did anything to alter the election’s trajectory, it was probably to enhance his own chances of becoming a one-term president.
It is possible that far fewer Americans will have the stomach to tune in for the three debates scheduled to take place over the coming weeks. Two are a rematch of Trump and Biden and the other a faceoff of their running mates.
But it is well worth watching the Oct. 15 debate in Miami, where Trump will be put in a far different situation.
That debate is to have a town-hall-style format, which means that many of the questions come from ordinary voters, who will be expressing the concerns and challenges they face as the country deals with a viral pandemic, a collapsed economy and a racial reckoning that is playing out, sometimes violently, on the streets of multiple cities.
Can Trump afford to be as disrespectful in that setting as he was on Tuesday night? Then again, is he capable of acting any other way when he is cornered?
No doubt the debacle in Ohio will bring a round of hand-wringing on all sides, and revive old questions about whether debates have outlived their purpose.
It was bad, to be sure. But it was also an accurate reflection of where our politics have brought this country. In that sense, there was something to be salvaged from the wreckage. The debate, or whatever you would call it, threw into even sharper relief the choice that faces voters in 2020.