The worst presidential debate of all time

96 minutes of shouts, insults, interruptions, stray thoughts, and loose babble

President Trump and Joe Biden.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

On Tuesday night the American people, or at least those unlucky millions who were not watching the Yankees-Indians game on ESPN instead, were subjected to an hour and a half of mindless shouting from two hapless sad-looking old men who looked as if they would rather be anywhere else but that auditorium in Ohio. President Trump also spoke.

The first presidential debate of the 2020 general election cycle was the most embarrassing spectacle of its kind this country has ever witnessed. My heart goes out to Chris Wallace, the usually able Fox News journalist who served as moderator. I use that word in its barest formal sense. At what was arguably the lowest point in an evening that rarely scraped above the Mariana Trench, Wallace told the two participants that while the next question would be on the subject of race, they should feel free to respond with their views on any subject. They did.

I have not yet seen a transcript of the conversation between Joe Biden and the president. It seems to me unlikely that one could be produced. My own barely adequate notes are full of things like this:

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"I am the Democratic Party!"

"There's nothing smart about you, Joe"

"Don't ever use that word with me"

"He needs to just shush for a minute"

"Will you shut up, man?"

"Let me shut you down, Joe, just for a second"

"He could be speaking 200 feet away"

"Biggest mask you've ever seen"

"You're the worst president America has ever had, come on"

"It's hard to get any word in with this clown"

"China sends dirt up into the air"

"Stupid bastard!"

But no actual transcription could possibly do justice to these 96 minutes of shouts, insults, interruptions, stray thoughts, and loose babble. It was like witnessing an argument about an arcane procedural rule during a senior bingo night at a nursing home in purgatory. It was vicious, tasteless, witless, and (surprisingly, alas) painfully unfunny.

This is where under other circumstances I would feel contractually obligated to tell readers what I think they should take away from Tuesday's exchange and what, if anything, it means for the presidential race going forward. I can say with confidence that no televised debate in American history has been less likely to change hearts, minds, or even half-formed impressions about the two candidates.

One absurd notion that Tuesday night ought to put to rest forever is that Biden is any less likely than his opponent to lie. Not only did the former vice president made false claims about crime, the economy, and Amy Coney Barrett's views; he also flatly denied that his son Hunter had been paid a six-figure salary by a Ukrainian mining company. Meanwhile Trump himself insisted that he had paid many millions more in incomes taxes in 2016 and 2017 than he appears to have done in many years. Was anyone at home keeping score? Did anyone notice? Did anyone care? I doubt it.

I am not an undecided voter or indeed any sort of voter. But I can say without hesitation that I did change my mind on Tuesday night. Like millions of other Americans, journalists in particular, for the past several months I had looked forward to this year's presidential debates. What unfolded on my screen emptied me of what I had assumed were many years of reserved pundit cynicism. It was a grim reminder that there is nothing amusing about the slow but almost certainly inexorable decline of the United States into a senile gerontocracy whose basic organizing principles are numbers going up on a computer screen somewhere and mindless entertainment. The whole thing is as painfully sad as it is well deserved.

I would rather watch Birdemic: Shock and Terror on a grainy VHS transfer dubbed over by a screeching Yoko Ono than another minute of this, much less two more evenings.

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