The first debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was bad — a horror show that made a lot of observers hope they would never have to watch a presidential debate again.
The good news is that Trump and Biden won't be debating each other tonight. The bad news is that they will be holding separate televised town halls. Trump will appear on NBC, while Biden will be featured on ABC. Letting the two candidates respond directly to voters is probably better than having them try to talk over each other. But because this is 2020, this seemingly good idea is being done in the worst way possible.
Both town halls will be held at the exact same time. So instead of getting to compare and contrast the candidates, undecided voters are going to have to choose which TV channel to watch. Instead of letting Americans weigh each man's ideas and promises, tonight's contest is going to be about ratings. Which man can draw the bigger audience?
Which means, of course, we're now playing on Trump's favorite turf.
The president has always been obsessed with his television numbers — claiming that The Apprentice was a hit long after it had faded in the ratings, pre-empting his coronavirus task force with live briefings to take the place of his rallies, bragging about his audience size even as the COVID-19 death toll climbed, in part, because of his inaction. So it makes sense that he would find a way to frame the presidential election, now in its final weeks, as a Nielsen battle.
It is Trump, after all, who brought us to this point. He behaved recklessly during the ongoing pandemic, contracting the coronavirus after holding events where attendees were often unmasked and ignored social distancing rules. And his disregard for health — both his own and that of others — sparked his refusal to do this week's planned debate by video, in a virtual format. Instead, he dropped out.
Biden, sensibly, decided to reclaim some air time by appearing tonight at ABC's town hall. On Wednesday, NBC announced Trump would be appearing on its airwaves at the exact same time.
This is a subtle variation of Trump's strategy at that terrible first debate. He interrupted Biden — and the moderator, Chris Wallace — constantly, in a frenetic and transparent attempt to establish himself as the alpha male on the stage. Instead, he came across as rude and mean-spirited. He won't get the chance to repeat quite that same behavior tonight; after all, he can't exactly interrupt himself, can he? But by scheduling his town hall at the same time, he is trying to pre-empt Biden, to make sure the challenger's position is obscured, to draw the spotlight to himself entirely.
NBC isn't exactly covering itself in glory with this move, either. The network enabled Trump's rise by portraying him — falsely, it turns out — as a successful businessman during his years on The Apprentice. It helped create his brand with editing, catchphrases, and dramatic music. The network could have agreed to put on the president's town hall at a different time than Biden's, the better to serve the public and give the public a choice of viewing both instead of deciding between the two. Instead, it decided to enable Trump's bad behavior.
"Voters should be able to watch both and I don't think many will," former NBC star Katie Couric tweeted on Wednesday. "This will be good for Trump because people like to watch his unpredictability. This is a bad decision."
The decision to have competing town halls doesn't rank anywhere near the top of Trump's sins against democratic norms and ideals. It is corrosive, however. But that almost certainly doesn't matter to Trump. Tonight he gets to live out his fantasy — he will be on TV, and he won't have to share the camera time or even a spotlight with Biden. He will be free to talk without expectation of having to give somebody else a word in edgewise, forever living out his Gloria Swanson moment.
This president may not be able to manage a pandemic properly, but he is, as always, ready for his closeup.
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