The first "debate," if you'll excuse the expression.

A very unsettling night for America.
Isaac Saul Sep 30, 2020
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free, subscribe for Friday editions and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 8 minutes.

I’m covering the first presidential debate with a different format than usual — a personal essay reflecting on what happened last night.


Well, it was worse than I thought it would be.

Before the debate, all the signs were there that it was going to be a long, torturous night. It started with a few pre-debate conspiracy theories taking off online throughout the day. One alleged Joe Biden had refused to agree to an “ear examination” for an earpiece before the debate; another that went viral claimed he refused a drug test; a third said he had asked for breaks every 30-minutes in the 90-minute, no-commercial affair; a fourth alleged he had been given the questions before the debate; and a fifth claimed he might not show up for the debate at all.

On Fox News, just minutes before the debate started, Tucker Carlson repeated two of the five aforementioned conspiracies to his audience with very little skepticism. Brit Hume — the face of the network’s “straight news” division on television — openly suggested that Biden was “senile.” The Trump campaign prematurely sent out a pre-scripted email blast titled “I finished debating Joe Biden.”

And then we were off.

In a typical Tangle newsletter, this is the part where I’d tell you what the right and the left were saying — where I’d leave my own opinion behind until the end and walk you through the arguments being made across the political spectrum. But the truth is, the results of last night, and the commentary surrounding it, were all predictable.

The people who support Trump thought he looked “strong” and “dominating” and “owned” Joe Biden. They saw Trump getting more words in, stringing sentences together, speaking loudly and clearly, and doing it without stammering or stumbling — at several moments, a marked difference from his opponent. Andrew Sullivan, who is far from a Trump supporter, put it like this: “Trump is dominating. That’s the brutal truth. It’s painful. So far.”

Dan Bongino, the Fox News commentator who is a nice encapsulation of much of Trump’s male base, called him an “apex predator.”

The people who support Biden saw the opposite: an unhinged, totally out-of-control president who was an embarrassment to the country. They saw the contrast. They saw Biden act presidential, act human, act like an adult, reference actual policies, show empathy, and (for the most part) laugh off the president’s absurdity.

Biden asked Trump to “shut up” repeatedly. "Donald, would you just be quiet for a minute?” he asked first. "Do you have any idea what this clown is doing?” he said to the moderator, Chris Wallace, later. “Would you shut up, man?” he blurted at one point. “Keep yapping, man,” he told Trump later into the debate, clearly exasperated. For the Democratic base, undoubtedly, it was cathartic to finally see someone tell Trump to shut up in person. And then Biden did the thing so many liberals were hoping he’d do: he looked right at the president and said, “You are the worst president America has ever had.” He also called him a “racist.”

If you missed the debate, and are curious what kinds of policy issues we got clarity on, I don’t have much of an answer for you. It was a spectacle of the worst kind.

CNN’s Dana Bash called the debate a “shitshow” on live television. Brian Williams reacted on MSNBC by saying, “what a dark event we just witnessed.” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos called it “the worst presidential debate I’ve ever seen in my life.” Jake Tapper said on CNN it was a “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck… It wasn’t even a debate, it was a disgrace, and it was primarily because of President Trump.” Fox News’s Sean Hannity, an unflinching Trump supporter, could only muster that Trump had introduced a “new style of debate.”

Ink will be spilled about who was commanding the stage (Trump) or who was more presidential (Biden) or who was more confident (Trump) or who was more prepared (Biden) or who lied more often (Trump) or who was the big loser (Chris Wallace, whose reputation may never recover). They’ll mostly be frivolous conversations.

Trump was, in a word, annoying. He resembled something between a hangry, know-nothing toddler and a teenage bully. Some may say he was unhinged or delusional or despicable — and they’ll have a case. But ultimately, the thing about these elections is that they can boil down to a popularity contest, and last night Trump was far more insufferable than his opponent. Trump’s base of supporters will celebrate him, sure, but the bubble they now live in is more insulated than the one liberals were in during the 2016 election. His mistakes were devastating.

Asked to denounce white supremacy on stage, and specifically the Proud Boys group that has been driving into Portland and antagonizing leftists, Trump said, “sure I’m willing to do that,” and then instead gave them an order: “Stand back and stand by.” This is the same group founded by Gavin McInnes who, in 2017, posted a video titled “10 things I hate about the Jews” and defended Holocaust denialism while repeatedly stereotyping Jewish people.

Within minutes, the Proud Boys social media accounts were on fire, celebrating the moment. They even blasted out a new logo with their insignia on it that said “Stand back and stand by,” officially viewing themselves as taking orders from the president. It was so awful and cringeworthy that Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., could only defend it in post-debate spin by supposing it must have been a “misspeak.” On Fox News, another Trump sycophant, Brian Kilmeade, said Trump "ruined the biggest layup in the history of debates by not condemning white supremacists. I don't know if he didn't hear it, but he's gotta clarify that right away. ... Why the president didn't just knock it out of the park, I'm not sure."

Asked to assure the American people he’d accept the results of the election, Trump instead, once again, offered a command: he told his “people” to go to the polls and watch closely for fraud, which — if done in an intimidating way — is illegal. Then he gave a two-minute monologue about voting fraud that was rife with misinformation and exaggerated, out-of-context stories, while millions of Americans watched and got dumber for their trouble.

Trump also attacked Biden’s son, Hunter, for an alleged wire transfer he received from the wealthiest woman in Russia and then — inexplicably — for being discharged from the Navy for cocaine use. Trump claimed he was “dishonorably discharged,” which is a lie (it was a less serious administrative discharge) and Biden responded as many parents would. He looked into the camera, at the American people, presumably at his son who was watching, and said that like millions of others Hunter had a drug problem. And he overcame that problem and he was proud of him.

There were other lies, too. Lots of them.

Trump’s lies poured out of him like a broken dam while Biden’s lies were the scripted kind of a politician. Trump lied about how much he paid in taxes, he claimed that Hunter Biden “takes out billions” from China despite having no evidence to back it up. He claimed that young children aren’t very affected by COVID-19 despite the many young children who have indeed contracted the virus and become very ill (even if it’s rare).

Trump claimed the Portland sheriff came out and supported him, which was a lie (the Sheriff explicitly said he does not support Trump). He claimed to have brought calm to Minneapolis and Seattle via “law and order” despite the fact that his actions did very little to reduce tensions — and in some cases only made things worse.

Perhaps most stunningly, Trump claimed he has had “no negative effects” from hosting tens of thousands of people for rallies despite the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, eight Trump staffers tested positive at the first rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, including members of the secret service. Former Republican presidential nominee Herman Cain, who attended the rally, died of COVID-19 a few weeks after sitting in the crowd without a mask, though it’s not entirely clear where and how he caught coronavirus. Trump’s claim that tens of thousands of people attended those rallies is also not true — in fact, it was fewer than 10,000 in each so far, including some events that were canceled because so few people came out. He also lied when he claimed that “we do them outside” — the Tulsa rally was held indoors, as were other Trump campaign rallies, including one last week in Nevada.

Biden lied about Antifa, saying it was nothing more than an idea — something that’s simply not true. There are Antifa organizations and groups in cities like Portland, and while they may be loosely organized and commit far less violence than right-wing extremists, they have committed acts of violence and they are not simply an idea. Biden lied about the economy, saying he and Obama left Trump a “booming economy” and “he caused a recession,” when in fact they left him a slowly growing and relatively stagnant economy that would have been devastated by COVID-19 regardless of who was president. He said we have a higher deficit with China now than we did before — which is also not true, the deficit with China under Trump is far lower, though it’s risen overall.

There were notable denunciations, too. Trump’s, again, were more absurd and confounding. He denounced his own FBI director, who he appointed, saying he was “wrong” if he said white supremacists were a bigger national security threat than Antifa (they are). He denounced his own CDC director for his comments on masks and vaccines. And he denounced his own intelligence community’s assessment of the threat of mail-in ballot fraud (they said there is very little or no threat).

Biden, meanwhile, did more of what he’s been doing but has gotten very little play in the press: he denounced calls to defund the police and spoke in broadly supportive terms of law enforcement, though he said there were “bad apples” that need to be sorted out. This will play well with some and hurt him with others. He denounced the Green New Deal, an interesting angle to take, considering his Vice President pick Kamala Harris co-sponsored the climate deal and it’s also featured positively on his campaign website. He denounced the far-left wing of the party, too. “I am the Democratic Party,” he said at one point, a biting and — frankly — pretty accurate assessment of where things stand.

With all of this in mind, last night was, ultimately, about an election. It was about convincing voters who to vote for, about changing hearts and minds, and about selling Americans on whose version and vision of America was stronger. That’s what debates are fundamentally for.

President Donald Trump is losing this election. Every single poll reflects that reality. Even Rasmussen, a polling outfit that often seems like an arm of the Trump campaign, said this morning that the president’s support is waning. Some polls show him losing badly, the most recent of which were back-to-back polls giving Biden a nine-point edge in the critical battleground state of Pennsylvania. It’s hard to imagine what we just witnessed last night helping the incumbent.

Of the voters who cast a ballot for Trump in 2016 and are fleeing him now, suburban white women are at the top of the list. I watched much of last night’s debate considering them, and independent voters, the last slice of the American electorate that Trump has any real chance of winning back to help him stave off defeat in 2020.

If they were unconvinced heading into last night, what do you suppose your average suburban woman or suburban mom is thinking now? Thanks in large part to the White House’s handling of COVID-19, many of those suburban women and mothers have been stuck at home for the last six months with children who are better behaved than Trump was last night. The COVID-19 debate was also one of the areas of the night where Biden seemed most prepared, offering data and talking points to make the point that Trump’s response was a failure.

Those same suburban women also watched Trump attack a former vice president’s son for having a drug problem, something millions of American families have faced themselves. They watched him evade an opportunity to denounce a white supremacist group. They heard little in the way of policy, little about how their lives have actually improved over the last four years. And mostly they watched the president refuse to stop interrupting Biden despite repeated pleas from the moderator to do so.

Independent voters, too, are wavering on Trump this year after many supported him or cast third-party ballots in 2016. Frank Luntz, the famous Republican pollster, conducted a live focus group on YouTube last night with 17 undecided voters, each from a battleground state. Asked to describe Trump in one word or phrase, 15 of the 17 voters used negative language like “ass” or “crackhead” or “arrogant.” Two had positive responses: “An ass but a confident ass” and “forceful.”

Then he did Biden. The positive responses were overwhelming: “Surprised," "better than expected,” "more professional,” "more a people person,” “confident," "restraint and compassion,” “leader," “attentive," “humanity," “integrity.”

The negative responses were much softer: ”Politician,” “predictable,” "Nice guy but lacking vision,” "Somewhat evasive.” Many of the voters did not seem swayed in any direction but instead seemed resigned to simply sit out 2020, an outcome that is just as bad for Trump as them casting ballots for Biden. Trump needs those voters to win.

Post-debate rapid polls unanimously showed the country thought Biden “won” the debate, though arguing that sort of thing is tedious (and, as one spectator pointed out, Trump actually did better in the YouGov poll this year than he did in 2016 versus Hillary).

But the response on the right was telling. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who helped Trump prepare for the debate, said he thinks they can “fix” his issues before the second one. Rick Santorum, the resident Trumper on CNN, said he thought the president was “hurt” by the performance he put on. Conservative activist and Trump supporter Charlie Kirk said in a livestream after the event that he may have set the bar too low for Biden — reminding his audience that “he’s been doing this for 47 years,” a tacit admission that Biden exceeded his (and everyone else’s) expectations.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said “The event was a spectacle of insults, interruptions, endless cross-talk, exaggerations and flat-out lies even by the lying standards of current U.S. politics… Mr. Trump no doubt wanted to project strength and rattle Mr. Biden, but he did so by interrupting him so much that he wouldn’t let Mr. Biden talk long enough even to make a mistake.”

“God help you if you tuned in, hoping to learn more about the candidates’ policies,” Jim Geraghty said in the National Review. “Biden came to win a debate, and Trump came to win WrestleMania. Like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, Trump just expanded to fill the whole room, filling up his time and spilling over into Biden’s time, hammering home whatever he wanted to talk about, whether it was related to Chris Wallace’s question or not…

“Trump fans will look at this and conclude their man won. He certainly made it impossible for Biden to make his points, and Trump had way more time to make his own arguments, so by that standard, Trump ‘won.’ But I’m not sure a performance like this is what dislodges Biden supporters and brings them over to the Trump side, or wins over whatever remaining undecided voters are out there.”

I texted three good friends who are voting for Trump this year and asked them what they thought. These were their answers: "Surprised. Interesting to see someone tell him to shut up.” "Joe doing better than I thought. Prepped well with talking points.” "Honestly pretty insane, but Biden seems better than I thought he'd be.”

In the hour after the debate, Joe Biden raised more money than he has at any other point during his campaign — even more than the first hour after Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. The betting odds markets skyrocketed in favor of Biden.

At risk of self-congratulation, I’ll point out that this was, of course, what I expected to happen beforehand. I had written that the Trump team was making a fatal error by repeatedly suggesting Biden was senile, had dementia, couldn’t function without a teleprompter or was otherwise incapacitated. At some point, the American public would see Biden — and they’d see that none of these things are true, or at least not as bad as they say, though if you go by the supercuts of him stammering or stuttering or forgetting a word it may seem that way. So it was a predictable outcome that when Biden showed up for the debates and put on a normal politician’s performance, he looked incredible.

Of course, there’s another crucial voting bloc that could swing the election, and that’s Black voters. Trump has been trying to eat into Biden’s African-American support, and Biden rode the African-American vote — the base of the Democratic party — to win the Democratic primary. If turnout amongst African-American voters is high in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan in 2020, Biden will almost certainly walk away victorious.

So they, too, are worth considering here. Perhaps nothing showed how broken our conversations about race in America are than the way the conversation went on race relations last night. Immediately, it devolved from race issues to “law and order,” a gross and — again, predictable — outcome given how the debate was going.

Race issues are not the same as law and order issues, though you probably couldn’t have derived that from last night. Still, though, Biden spoke about equality and the toll of COVID-19 on race, citing the stunning statistic that one in 1,000 Black Americans has died from the virus — and the number could be as high as one in 500 by 2021. This is the kind of thing Black voters may actually care about — the kind of thing that will resonate with people watching at home, who are unsure which candidate is thinking about how their lives have changed in the last year.

Trump landed some punches, too, bringing up the 1994 crime bill that Biden helped pass which decimated many African American communities. He made the cogent point that he was now pardoning some of the people Biden’s bill sent to prison. But the crime bill talking point on Biden has been in the ether for a decade — since he was running against Obama in 2008. The now, the present, the current events surrounding life as a Black American in the U.S. is the only thing that’s going to move voters who haven’t already made their minds up.

Charlamagne tha God, the influential radio host who pressed Biden far enough in an interview that he produced the now-infamous “If you don’t vote for me you ain’t Black” gaffe, reacted to the debate on Twitter: “Why are people surprised that a white supremacist didn't condemn white supremacy??” He said. “What Trump have y'all been watching the past almost 4 years?”

To imagine that last night’s debate helped Trump with Black voters would be to imagine that Black voters — somehow different from the rest of America — gleaned anything meaningful at all from the debate besides the fact that our country is in a very, very bad place and our president can be a bit difficult to watch sometimes.

Again: Donald Trump is losing the election. If it were held today, barring something catastrophic (like, say, 2-3% of the vote in battleground states being thrown out), he would lose. Perhaps “bigly.” Given that someone has a clear advantage in this race, the question of there being a “winner” and “loser” is really a question about whether last night will tighten the race at all.

With the voters that matter most, there’s no evidence that it will. By all measurable accounts, Biden did what he needed to do — he didn’t crack, he didn’t lose his cool, he didn’t have a major health episode on stage and he managed a few wisecracks and smiles along the way. Trump has 34 days to change course and expand his support, otherwise he’ll be on his way out in the next five weeks.


Quick hits.

  1. A federal appeals court in Wisconsin upheld a ruling on a six-day extension for absentee ballots to be counted following the election, a major win for Democrats.
  2. An early surge of already requested and returned absentee ballots from Democratic voters in battleground states has Republican operatives worried about high turnout and enthusiasm on the left.
  3. Nearly 100,000 defective absentee ballots were sent to voters in Brooklyn, New York, each with mismatching names on the outside and inside, calling into question the state’s ability to handle high mail-in voting rates.
  4. Treasury SecretarySteven Mnuchin is expected to come to Speaker Nancy Pelosi with a counter to her $2.2 trillion COVID-19 relief bill today, setting up the potential for Congress to pass another wave of relief before the new year.
  5. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer took the extraordinarily rare move of forcing a floor vote on a health care bill to protect people with pre-existing conditions.

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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