Donald Trump made it so, and Chris Wallace let him.
By James Fallows
The 90-minute spectacle tonight calls into question the value of having any “debates” of this sort ever again. No one knows more about public life than he or she did before this disaster began; some people know less; and everyone feels and looks worse.
Start with the supposed moderator, Chris Wallace. It became obvious five minutes in that Donald Trump’s strategy was to interrupt, yell, insult, and disrupt as often as he could. This is a strategy that can work only if no one gets in the way of it, and Chris Wallace just let it go on. Maybe Wallace was caught by surprise by Trump’s bellicosity and primate-dominance. (But—c’mon.) Even so, two or three minutes of this should have been enough to adjust. He didn’t adjust. And he let Trump roll over him.
Maybe—I don’t know—the negotiated debate rules prevented Wallace from selectively cutting off the speakers’ mics. Even so, there are ways for the people supposedly in charge of an event to demonstrate that in fact they are in charge. Wallace made clear early on that he was not.
Trump’s instincts are taken from pro wrestling, as with his famous stunt of shaving Vince McMahon’s head. Thus Trump was unconstrained by norms or unenforced rules; Wallace did not enforce the rules, and the result, as it would be in a brawl or an unrefereed sporting match, was one person unconstrained by any of the norms of “allotted time” or “take your turn” or “respectful disagreement,” and another who was half the time constrained by those expectations, and the other half taking the bait in some way.
I recorded a whole detailed minute-by-minute annotation of the debate as it unfolded, but I’m not going to dignify this disaster with any details. It was a giant mess. Did the spectacle change any votes? Who knows. Maybe some people were revved up for Trump by his assertiveness. Maybe other people—I’d guess a larger number, but it’s just a guess—were repelled by his bullying tactics.
Was Biden correctly playing the long game, by turning all topics from Trump’s favored terrain (It’s about me) to Biden’s theme (It’s about you) and addressing the camera rather than Wallace or Trump?
Will either side’s strategy pay off ? I can’t say. And—just for this second—I don’t care. I’ll think about that tomorrow.
But for tonight I’ll say this was a disgusting moment for democracy. Donald Trump made it so, and Chris Wallace let him. I hope there are no more debates before this election. If they happen, I won’t waste another minute of my life watching them.
The modern presidential debate was invented in 1960. We may have seen the end of its useful life this evening.
JAMES FALLOWS is a staff writer at The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Jimmy Carter’s chief speechwriter. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the 2018 book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which was a national best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary.