I’VE WATCHED a lot of presidential general election debates. This was the first time that I spent much of the time hoping that the feed to foreign nations was somehow disabled, because what we saw Tuesday night — what President Donald Trump did on Tuesday night — was so deeply embarrassing to the nation. Whether it was the constant interruptions, or the refusal to condemn right-wing violence, or the false claims about the voting process and how they undermine the democracy, or the steady stream of false statements, or the habit of casting blame on anyone and everyone except for himself, or the wild conspiracy-theory rantings, Trump spent 90 minutes demonstrating how he’s not fit for the office he holds.
What he did not demonstrate is that he has any grasp of the US government or public policy. At one point, former Vice-President Joe Biden — he was there too, he did fine — said of Trump: “He has no idea what he’s talking about.” I think it was about absentee voting, but there was hardly any evidence throughout the debate that Trump has learned, well, anything. Climate? Nope. Health care? Nope. Even the stuff that he supposedly is running on. Policing? His basic message is that anything bad is the fault of Democrats and that he could easily handle it if it wasn’t for them. But not only does he have no detailed plan, he can’t even talk about crime or law-enforcement in a way that demonstrates he has any understanding of the issues.
Trump claimed, as he has many times before, that voting by mail is full of fraud. It isn’t. Once again, he made a meaningless distinction between states in which ballots are sent to everyone automatically and states in which voters must request them. And once again, all his examples of supposed fraud were from states — Pennsylvania, New York, and others — that fall into the latter category. It’s a nonsensical distinction to begin with; experts have found no problems at all, as Biden pointed out, in the handful of states that send everyone a ballot. Trump, on this topic as on everything else, never demonstrated that he knows more than what a typical viewer of a third-rate partisan talk show would know.
Debates are typically useful for two reasons. They are a ritual of democracy, and they are a high-profile venue for making promises. Debates involving Trump barely qualify on either count. The ritual part of it is undermined when one of the candidates doesn’t appear to believe in democracy. I’ll put up with debates that feature a lot of squabbling and heated rhetoric; democracy doesn’t have to always have good manners, and it’s sometimes good when it doesn’t. Indeed, Biden didn’t exactly showcase civil etiquette Tuesday night. He interrupted a fair amount (although, as moderator Chris Wallace pointed out, not nearly as often as Trump), and he certainly didn’t show the respect for the presidency that many challengers have chosen to display on similar occasions.
But it’s on the promises part where Trump undermined the whole point of having debates. Because he’s unconstrained by the truth — check the fact-checking reports for the ugly details — and because he really doesn’t discuss real-world policy, he undercuts the entire process of representation. That’s the process of making promises, governing with those promises in mind, explaining governing decisions to the voters, and then renewing and updating promises in the next election. The problem is not just that Trump will say anything. It’s that because his promises aren’t based on real policy, he apparently feels no incentive to execute policies that citizens actually like.
On the other hand, promises are also about what kind of person a politician will be. For that, Trump certainly demonstrated who he is, and it’s probably fair to say that he warned us.
Biden did fine. Going into the debate, the Trump campaign increased the volume on smears that Biden is cognitively impaired. Biden does trip over his words a fair amount (his childhood stutter has clearly come back to bother him more than it did 20 years ago), but he gave clear, coherent and occasionally clever answers when he could be heard over Trump’s interruptions. He also managed to do a pretty good job of controlling his temper, given the circumstances. Biden has never been great at debating, but he’s experienced. Unlike Trump (and like every major-party presidential candidate other than Trump) Biden does his homework, whether it’s for debates or governing, and it shows.
I won’t guess what pundits will talk about in the debate’s aftermath, or how voters will react when pollsters get to them. I can say this: For the 51% to 55% of the electorate that had previously decided against Trump, and have been giving him poor marks for his presidency, it’s hard to see what he did in this debate that might change their minds.