The first debate, held Tuesday, was one of the few remaining chances for Trump to redirect the race. It was an opportunity for him to shift public perceptions of what his presidency had accomplished and to present Biden as a less desirable alternative. It would not be easy, given the deficit he faced coming into the evening, but it was at least theoretically possible.
What Trump did instead was something quite different. Instead of engaging with Biden in good faith, his approach was quite simply to bluster and bully his way through every discussion. Rather than let Biden offer a thought and respond to it on the merits, Trump decided not to let Biden offer any thoughts in the first place.
At first, he was clearly trying to fluster Biden, probably in an effort to reinforce his long-standing baseless assertion that Biden was suffering from a mental decline. And for a period, it worked: Biden, clearly expecting an actual debate, was forced to adjust. But, soon, he adjusted, at times letting his frustration with Trump’s flailing punches seep through, as when he flatly suggested that the president “shut up.”
But Trump’s strategy didn’t change. On question after question, Trump tried to pester Biden so he couldn’t offer any coherent answer — not because of any deficiency with Biden but simply because no one could, any more than one could have an elegant tea party in the middle of a dodgeball game.
Trump attacked moderator Chris Wallace as readily as he did Biden, taking advantage of Wallace’s stated preference for sitting back and letting the two candidates take on one another. It was a fundamental mistake on Wallace’s part and one he should have expected: Trump was never going to debate Biden on policy in a traditional sense. But, really, it would have been hard to predict the extent to which Trump threw out the idea that a sincere debate should even be an option.
Over the past few weeks, there were repeated reports that Trump wasn’t preparing for the matchup. He wasn’t holding standard debate sessions and wasn’t setting aside time to be ready to face Biden. Asked about those reports, Trump said that his job was all of the preparation he needed.
That turns out to have been accurate. Trump has prepared for his approach to the debate for months in the full sight of the American public. His approach was the approach he takes on Twitter: lifting up various unfounded allegations, shouting at everyone for hours on end, celebrating obscure memes and jokes. Biden found himself debating @realdonaldtrump and not the sitting president of the United States.
It’s an odd gambit for Trump. Sure, it means he floods out Biden’s own attacks or Biden’s presentation of his policy ideas. (Trump, famously, has offered little in the way of a second-term agenda.) The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson noted that it was the human equivalent of a distributed denial-of-service attack, a hostile effort in which a website is flooded with so much garbage traffic that good requests can’t get through. Few rational debate topics survived Trump’s tsunami.
But as a strategy? Voters, even many of those who like Trump, consistently say that it’s his Twitter persona they find most distasteful. Trump took the least popular aspect of his approach to politics and elevated it for what will likely turn out to be the most-watched debate of the cycle.
It’s easy to look at Trump’s bizarre actions and assume there’s intentionality behind them, which is often a mistake. One does have to wonder, though, whether Trump would be terribly upset if his approach, his aggressive attacks and interruptions prompted people to not want to watch the debate at all. If you are worried about voters being compelled by Biden, getting them to turn off the TV is certainly a tactic.
What history has taught us to expect from a presidential debate is a retraction of the tumult and energy of campaigning to have a moment of sobriety and insight. What happened Tuesday night, though, was the opposite: Trump grabbing the moment and dragging it into turf where he felt comfortable.
Trump was not going to beat Biden in a debate on policy or on his record on things like the coronavirus pandemic. So Trump decided not to have much of a debate at all.