There’s a George Bernard Shaw quote that speaks to the dangers of debating Donald Trump: “I learned long ago never to wrestle with a pig,” the adage goes. “You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.” No matter what happened in Cleveland on Tuesday night, Joe Biden was always going to wind up with at least a little mud on him. But he was absolutely covered in it by the end of the first 2020 debate. From the outset, Trump turned the proceedings into an absolute fiasco—a grotesque, impossible-to-watch bickering match led by a president who bulldozed over the moderator and his opponent with a deluge of familiar lies, empty boasts, and rage.
Biden, oftentimes, seemed at a loss for how to respond to the disgraceful inundation. Frustrated, irritated, and in disbelief, the former vice president mostly sought to avoid the hostile confrontations Trump seemed intent on provoking. It was often to Biden’s detriment. He spoke truth where Trump lied, expressed reason where his opponent engaged in his typical fanciful thinking—but his measure did little to dam the heavy flow of Trump’s lies. The occasions when Biden allowed some of his anger to show through—like after Trump bragged that he “brought back football” in what was supposed to be a serious line of questioning about the COVID crisis that’s claimed more than 200,000 American lives—were his strongest. When Biden allowed himself to call Trump a “clown,” when he said Trump is the “worst president America has ever had,” when he lamented his opponent’s relentless “yapping,” it was cathartic. The Democrat, feeling the words in his bones, delivered those rebukes with far greater gusto than his futile efforts to fact-check his opponent in real time.
“Will you shut up, man?” an exasperated Biden asked in the early going, as Trump provided running commentary of his answers.
Strong, too, were the moments when Biden gave up engaging in Trump’s petty squabbling and spoke directly into the camera, to the American people. “Under this president,” Biden said during a particularly strong indictment of the president, “we’ve become weaker, sicker, poorer, more divided, and more violent.”
But too often, Biden’s appeals to facts and common sense were overpowered by the far louder Trump, who was not hemmed in by the boundaries of truth and normalcy that constrained his opponent and moderator Chris Wallace. Turns out, a willingness to say anything and to say it loudly will get you far. Trump didn’t say anything new; every single gripe and brag and distortion and head-scratcher he offered up Tuesday was the same bullshit he’s been peddling the last three and a half years or so on Twitter, the rally stage, television interviews, press scrums, and interminable coronavirus press conferences. He made noises about “law and order,” the great job he’s supposedly done on the coronavirus crisis he downplayed, Hunter Biden’s supposed corruption, the threat his opponent allegedly poses to the suburbs, and his contention that the upcoming election is “rigged.”
“This is going to be a fraud,” Trump said.
Those refrains dominated the show, but Biden did get a few words in edgewise, including with his best line of the night—an uppercut in which he used the president’s own dismissal of the coronavirus death toll against him. “It is what it is,” Biden said, “because you are who you are.” Wallace, meanwhile, is a good interviewer who has been better than many in his bouts with the president. But he largely avoided challenging Trump on his plainly false assertions, struggled to keep him on topic, and too-frequently delved into both sides-ism when admonishing the candidates for talking over one another. He also spent too little time on the New York Times’ bombshell revelations about Trump’s tax avoidance and massive debts. Even he finally seemed to get fed up with Trump’s act eventually, though, raising his voice at one point and scolding that the “country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak.” When Trump pouted that the same should be said to Biden, Wallace returned: “Frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting than he has.”