How do you tell if US President Donald Trump is putting in an “unhinged” performance?
That was the adjective used by a number of analysts – and at least one undecided voter in a focus group – to describe Trump’s behaviour in the first of three presidential debates between him and former vice president Joe Biden on Tuesday.
Yet it is hard to pin such a description down, because Trump’s entire presidency has seemed like a steady stream of actions and comments that would have each been considered outrageous if they had come from any other president in recent memory. Can you be unhinged if you didn’t have a hinge in the first place?
Put another way, Trump has been steadily behind Biden by more than 7 points in national polls for several months now, in part because, according to various polls, more than 60% of Americans have felt that his handling of volatile situations actually led to things getting worse and 65% do not trust his word on the Covid-19 crisis.
Will another typically Trumpian ‘unhinged performance’ then do anything to persuade voters who had drifted away from the president over the last four years to return to the fold in time for the November election – especially because the tactic did not prompt any gaffes from Biden?
That is the central question that emerges from Tuesday’s chaotic debate, in which the moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, struggled to prevent the president from interrupting and speaking over Biden, while the latter seemed to strain himself in an attempt to land a couple of verbal blows.
Read this to see how folks on Twitter saw the debate playing out in real time.
And here are our five takeaways for those who didn’t catch it in real time:
Trump is as Trumpy as ever
In 2016, after Trump won the Republic primaries, some were hopeful that coming to the bigger stage might temper his extreme tendencies – the blatant racism, the willingness to push unfounded conspiracy theories, the labeling of all criticism as fake news, the lack of faith in democratic systems and the complete lack of decorum, among others. That never happened, and Trump’s combative, provocative approach coupled with an outsider-vs-insider narrative would win him enough votes in a sufficient number of states to defeat Hillary Clinton, though she won more in total.
Trump is no longer the outsider, and his fact-free approach to dealing with the media is much better understood now. Moreover, he has consistently been behind Biden in polls all year long, prompting some to wonder if Trump would change tack in the final weeks of the campaign.
The debate offered a clear answer: No.
The Republican launched some sharp substantive attacks on Biden, but put much more effort into constantly hectoring and interrupting the former vice president than laying out a vision for why Americans should elect him for a second term.
Two moments offered the clearest glimpse of the Trump approach to the debate.
The president was asked if he would condemn white supremacists and militia groups, whose support he and his movement have been happy to court all along. Pressed on it, Trump finally said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by”, appearing to command the neo-fascist far-right militia rather than condemn them.
Later, as Joe Biden was talking about his son, Beau Biden, a war veteran who died in 2015 of cancer, Trump decided to jump in to attack the former vice president’s other son, who has been in the spotlight in part because of the president’s efforts to get other countries to investigate him. As Buzzfeed’s Katherine Miller described it:
“For the disorienting bulk of that debate, with the exception of the occasional direct-to-camera appeal from either candidate, Trump’s constant weaving in and out of his own questions and Biden’s answers created a chaotic but effective overload — unless you were paying keen attention, you might have only caught fragments of words and phrases and subjects swarming by.
Except for one part, where the two strategies gradually combined into one and blossomed into a driveby nightmare moment: Trump attacking Biden’s living son, while Biden spoke about his late son...
The collision of what Trump kept trying to do (disorient and upend) with the grim reality that he put this all to someone speaking about his adult child who is no longer living surfaced a jarring moment of amorality.”
Joe Biden didn’t mess up
Because of the constant coverage that Trump commands in the press, even when he’s attacking it, it is sometimes hard to remember that he is actually behind in the national polls – and has been seen by as much as 7 points for most of 2020.
One general reading of the Biden’s campaign plan has been simply: Don’t mess this up. The former vice president is known for gaffes, doesn’t command the support of a majority of Americans when it comes to questions about handling the economy and was clearly not the sharpest debater on stage during the Democratic primaries.
Yet he also seems to offer a face that promises a calm, steady, centrist approach in comparison to the new-crisis-everyday administration that his opponent has embodied.
It is true that debates have rarely, according to polls at least, led to major turning points for campaigns, with many voters tuning in having already decided who they wanted to support. But the worry for those on the Democratic side was that Biden would be unnerved by Trump’s bullying approach and lose his cool.
This didn’t happen. Biden did go from calling him “president’” to ‘liar,’ ‘fool’, ‘clown’, ‘racist’, and, at one point asking Trump to “shut up”, but it all seemed mild in comparison to the barrage of commentary coming from the other end.
And on the few occasions that Biden was able to speak uninterrupted, he addressed the American voters directly, and projected that calm that many believe is the reason for his broader appeal over Trump.
Not much foreign policy (except for two Trump putdowns of India)
There was no time allotted to foreign policy as a separate subject on this debate, offering little for those watching from abroad to learn anything about how the US might behave internationally over the next four years – other than the behaviour implicit from the personalities of the two men on stage.
Biden attacked Trump for his attempt at reaching out to China, saying “he talks about the art of the deal. China has perfected the art of the steal.” He also called Trump “Putin’s puppy”, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. In return, Trump told Biden that China “ate your lunch” and tried to connect this to the controversies surrounding the former vice president’s son.
The international element also came up in the debate around climate change, with Trump going on a meandering rant about ‘forest cities’ in Europe, while Biden brought up deforestation in Brazil.
India only came up on two occasions, both negative references from Trump that put the country alongside Russia and China.
First, on Covid-19 deaths, Trump said, “When you talk about numbers, you don’t know how many people died in China, you don’t know how many people died in Russia, you don’t know how many people died in India. They don’t exactly give you (a) straight count.”
And then, while talking about climate change, “China sends up real dirt into the air. Russia does. India does. They all do.”
The election will not wrap up quickly
One thing that should be clear for those following from abroad: Unlike in the past few elections, the result this year may not be clear on the night of November 3. This is partly because of Covid-19. Many more voters are expected to vote through mail-in ballots. In fact, many have already done son. And counting those usually takes longer, so candidates on both sides said that it could days or even weeks for the final result.
But this is also complicated by Trump’s blatant attempts at undermining faith in the mail-in ballot system. The president has sought to convey the impression – without evidence – that mail-in ballots make it easy to commit voter fraud. He has gone so far as to say that he will not commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the election, citing his belief that this fraud is rampant.
The Atlantic this month laid out a series of steps that Trump’s team is considering taking if the results are close, to ensure that they are not kicked out of the White House.
Asked to pledge that he would ask his supporters not to engage in civil unrest and to commit to not declaring victory until the results are independently certified, Trump made it clear that he plans to do no such thing.
The last time an American election ended inconclusively, in 2000, the Supreme Court had to make the final decision about who won – something Trump has invoked in his effort to fill a seat at the court before the election. But because of the civil unrest provoked by Trump’s support of right-wing and White supremacist militias, many fear that a contested result would end in not just a Supreme Court fight but also more violence on the ground.
The next two moderators should be worried
Chris Wallace is a well-regarded American journalist who looked entirely out of his depth on Tuesday, struggling to rein in the president and ensure that what happened on stage was civil and, as importantly, actually useful for those watching. Wallace had said before the debate that he hoped to be “as invisible as possible” to let the candidates speak.
Trump, by constantly interrupting and speaking over his opponent, did not let that happen. At one point, Wallace had to lecture the president not to interrupt – and saw Trump interrupt him again.
The next two moderators of presidential debates, Steve Scully and Kristin Welker, are not as well known outside the US as Wallace. Their approaches may be different – Scully’s debate will in fact be a town hall style one – but if the first is anything to go by, they will have a lot of work to do.
Meanwhile, Indian-Americans and viewers in India might be more interested in the next debate coming up: The Vice Presidential one between incumbent Mike Pence and Democrat Kamala Harris on October 7.