The First Presidential Debate: ‘Will You Shut Up, Man?’
A digital watch party with Tressie McMillan Cottom, Garance Franke-Ruta, Max Ufberg, and Andrea González-Ramírez
Garance Franke-Ruta: Hi, I’m Garance, executive editor of GEN. By releasing his taxes today, Joe Biden signaled that he wants tonight’s debate to be about economic fairness. Biden paid more taxes than Donald Trump — I mean, didn’t we all? — despite earning significantly less money. Can the candidate from Scranton out-populist the man from Mar-a-Lago? Only time will tell!
Debate day also saw a Trump-campaign-pushed controversy over whether Biden was wearing an earpiece in the 2016 debates, a type of controversy dating back to at least 2000 that recurs each political cycle, as well as the declassification and release by the director of national intelligence of what Politico described as “a Russian intelligence assessment that was previously rejected by Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee as having no factual basis” — which is to say, a relitigation of 2016.
The Biden campaign sent a letter to Facebook accusing the company of becoming the “nation’s foremost propagator of disinformation about the voting process” for not taking down false Trump campaign statements about the election, and Trump ally and foreign lobbyist Rudy Giuliani accused Biden of taking Adderall to enhance his performance in the debate. Biden’s response:
GFR: And here’s Biden’s digital director with a brilliant long-game troll.
GFR: Of note tonight is that this is the first presidential debate since 2004 to feature two white men. And moderator Chris Wallace, at 72, is the youngest man on the stage.
Andrea González-Ramírez: And to think a year ago, i.e. 10,000 years ago, we had the most diverse group of presidential candidates in this nation’s history debating each other. Hi, this is Andrea González-Ramírez, GEN’s senior writer, reporting for duty with Ben & Jerry by my side.
Tressie McMillan Cottom: I thought the debate started at 8 p.m. so I started drinking too early. I am Tressie McMillan Cottom, sociologist and writer. I am watching for the political spectacle — what performance can tell us about politics and public life.
I expect to despise Chris Wallace. I also expect Trump will do well and Biden will, too, and none of it will sway voters one way or the other. How well each candidate does will shape election coverage and political discourse for the coming week. That matters. Also, I am going to drink so hard.
Max Ufberg: And this is GEN’s senior editor Max Ufberg also reporting for duty with a mug of tea and a 16-year-old cat by my side from Scranton, Pennsylvania, where both Joe Biden and I were born.
AGR: Scranton… the electric city? I’m sorry, Max.
MU: It’s okay. It’s honestly the thing people seem to care about most when they meet me.
GFR: Guests on Biden’s side of the aisle are masked. I spotted Tiffany Trump wearing a mask on entry, but then she took it off once seated. Melania Trump continued to wear her mask inside the debate hall.
MU: A pretty apt characterization for the whole partisan debate around masks.
AGR: It’s almost like they’ve forgotten more than 200,000 Americans have died of Covid-19.
AGR: And, off we go! The first question is about the Supreme Court and Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination. “Elections have consequences,” says President Trump, justifying that Barrett is likely to be confirmed so close to the election. Probably one of the truest things he’s said in all of his presidency.
MU: Trump brings up Merrick Garland. “The problem is, they didn’t have the election.” More like… Democrats didn’t cheat?
AGR: Both Trump and Biden are being extremely civil. It’s such a contrast from the way Trump and Clinton treated each other in 2016. Who knows how long that’ll last, though.
TMC: I cannot get over how old and white and male this visual is. It is stunning.
GFR: Biden is going after Trump for Amy Coney Barrett’s views on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the Obama-Biden administration’s largest legislative accomplishment and the issue polling suggests is the most effective argument Democrats can make against her nomination.
MU: Trump says, “There aren’t 100 million people with preexisting conditions.” True, it could be 129 million.
AGR: Health care was a defining issue of the 2018 midterm election, and attacking the Affordable Care Act is one of the reasons why the Republican Party lost the House. Barrett’s views, and the looming Supreme Court oral arguments on the ACA, could mobilize voters.
GFR: We’re less than 15 minutes into this thing and angry Trump has already shown up. Sometimes he starts slow and calm in debates and then gets agitated later. In this debate he’s coming out more forceful right off the bat, tossing out accusations at such a pace that it’s hard for Biden to get a word in.
TMC: Biden’s (and by extension the Democrats’) argument about voting for a Supreme Court justice does not go over well. I am sympathetic to it, obviously. I care about people with uteruses. But the political argument of “electing a president is a vote for the Supreme Court” falls flat. “Elections have consequences” is a stronger argument.
TMC: Biden isn’t doing well so far. Trump just tested him and he didn’t do well with a direct attack. That means you can expect more of them tonight.
GFR: Trump is arguing with Chris Wallace now.
MU: Holy shit, we’re seeing a strongman at play here. Good on Wallace for pushing back at least.
AGR: Sixteen minutes in and I’m just so tired already.
TMC: With this attack on Chris Wallace, Trump is feeling the wind at his back. He pokes and tests and adapts well. He is dismantling with this method.
GFR: Trump just talks over Biden. Over and over. Until he can pull the conversation back to one of his attacks. The goal is to make Biden look feeble.
MU: Honestly, I don’t know how you debate Trump when he’s this bombastic and obnoxious. He’s just a bully.
AGR: We could have benefitted from Chris Wallace fact-checking both candidates but, eh, he’s said he would not do that.
GFR: I don’t know what the purpose of this is when one person is talking about reality and one person’s argumentatively pushing forward fantastical claims he repeatedly makes about the world and himself.
TMC: Joe needs to call in Joey, the guy from all his tough guy stories.
MU: Joe Biden: “Will you shut up, man? This is so unpresidential.”
GFR: Biden with the first zinger of the night that people will recall. After all that Trump jabbing. It’s what Trump opponents have been dying for someone to tell him — and what equivocal voters hate most about Trump, the endless tweeting and argumentativeness.
AGR: The Supreme Court segment just ended. Did we learn anything new? Did we hear actual ideas? Of course not! #AbolishTheDebates
TMC: Biden is debating like a candidate who believes the people want a restoration of dignity. That may be true, but it underestimates or ignores how deeply angry and afraid millions of voters are. If you are angry and afraid tonight, only one of these candidates reflects that back at you.
AGR: It’s the perpetual problem of the Democratic Party, isn’t it? Republicans are playing a completely different ball game.
AGR: “It’s China’s fault,” Trump says, trying to deflect responsibility for his administration’s disastrous handling of the pandemic. I wonder whether one of his racist Covid terms will make an appearance tonight.
MU: And we got our first mention of “fake news!” Great to be here, everybody.
AGR: It’s always 2016 in this country.
TMC: The kitchen table metaphor, except with a new Covid deaths spin. That’s a new one. I hate this metaphor. It’s embedded in 1950s patriarchal, racist nostalgia. That’s what you get when everyone on the stage is 1 million years old.
GFR: Biden pivoting from arguing with Trump to talking to voters about Trump.
TMC: Joe drew a little blood with the bleach comment. If he was quicker on his feet, he would double down on that. He gets a good jab but then goes back to the center of the ring. So weird.
AGR: I’m surprised Biden is not throwing more punches. It’s not like it would make him look unlikable. That’s one of the many benefits of being a white, male candidate. [She said while rolling her eyes.]
MU: Biden stumbled when asked whether he and Harris have questioned government scientists, saying it’s nongovernment scientists we should be listening to. The right answer is simply that good science is suppressed in the Trump administration.
TMC: Trump is so sensitive about his lack of intelligence and education. It is stunning how rarely anyone just hammers him on it. He is deeply emotional here.
GFR: Trump is so insulting. “Don’t ever use the word smart with me. You’re not smart, Joe” he says to Biden.
MU: Also, to be clear, Biden never said he went to Delaware State. Trump lied.
TMC: On pure masculine performance, “shush it” doesn’t land well. Someone tell Joe not to say that again.
AGR: “We have no problem whatsoever,” Trump says of holding rallies during the pandemic. As a reminder, Herman Cain died of Covid-19 after attending a Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
MU: And of course he boasted about his crowd size.
TMC: I can barely make Joe’s voice out in some exchanges. As in audibly, it just fades away. I don’t know if it is affect or sound but it makes him sound weak, literally. And I cannot believe Joe didn’t respond to “no one gets sick at our rallies” by mentioning THAT HERMAIN CAIN DIED AFTER GETTING SICK AT ONE.
GFR: Trump’s narcissism is starting to come through more vividly than in 2016, perhaps a consequence of the extreme deference with which he is treated as a head of state.
MU: Trump just said, “We built the greatest economy in history.” But, as the Washington Post reported, even “excluding 2020, growth in Trump’s initial three years in office was 2.5% — barely above Obama and well below the growth under the Clinton, Reagan, and Johnson administrations.”
AGR: “THE CHINA PLAGUE.” Guess I gotta update my running list of racist things our president has said.
GFR: Trump is making his campaign arguments that are totally divorced from reality in terms of both what Biden supports and what Trump does.
TMC: Joe just referred to Trump as a “millionaire and billionaire” which seems like a bad move given the new tax return dumps. Trump loves being called a millionaire, even if it is meant to be an insult. Calling him that reinforces his strongman persona. Smarter to say, “like the people who prop him up” or something that points to the lie.
MU: I think Biden’s performing much better now than he did at the start. He seems less timid and he’s hammering Trump on his Covid response.
GFR: Biden: “You can’t fix the economy until you fix the Covid crisis.”
AGR: Biden is once again speaking directly to voters instead of trying to throw it down with Trump. It might be a more effective approach, TBH.
TMC: Chris Wallace just letting Trump run the show, like everyone does. Only a woman or a person of color can handle Donald Trump and nothing I have seen so far changes my mind about this.
AGR: Awwwww yeaaaah. Chris Wallace goes in: “Is it true that you paid $750 on federal taxes?”
MU: Trump says he paid “millions of dollars” in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017.
GFR: Well that’s setting a marker for reporters to follow up on. And a dare that could shake more documents out of whatever offices they are squirreled away in.
TMC: People won’t like it, but Trump is right about this part: The Democrats did write a tax code that benefits rich people. It’s disingenuous of them to now moralize about it. The Dems have a problem on this.
GFR: Biden saying, “You’re the worst president America has ever had” again just comes out there and says to Trump’s face exactly what Democrats think. It’s the kind of direct address it’s impossible to imagine Hillary Clinton getting away with.
AGR: This is what I meant earlier! Biden can get away with it. Just a quick additional observation: I recommend switching to wine because it’ll just keep going downhill from here.
MU: They’re getting into taxes now. The question for Trump now is whether he’d continue his free-market approach, and Wallace points out that more jobs were created in Obama’s final three years than in Trump’s first three years.
TMC: Chris Wallace with the Obama stats on job creation is going to make Donald very mad. That is one of his issues. So much of Trump’s narcissistic rage is still about Barack Obama.
AGR: Agree, Tressie. You would think that winning the White House and dismantling Obama’s legacy over the past three years would temper his rage, and yet.
TMC: Yeah, Andrea. Nothing will satisfy him on this front because what he wants is the adoration that Obama gets. I cannot believe Biden isn’t going at this whole Russia attack from Trump with hitting him on his debt. But what do I know?
MU: Oh they’re going into China. Fun fact: Moody’s Analytics estimated in 2019 that Trump’s trade war with China cost the U.S. 300,000 jobs.
GFR: Biden: “It’s hard to get any word in with this clown.” I wonder if Trump is overplaying his hand here. He seems out of control.
AGR: The way Biden just said “this clown” — I felt that. That’s the same tone I take when talking about my friends’ shitty exes.
TMC: Oh Garance — you are so kind to think Trump could overplay his hand, LOL.
GFR: It is hard for anyone to look strong when they are standing calmly while getting a blast of hostility like Trump delivers. This is about right:
TMC: Biden with his first cogent critique of the night and it’s on the racial disparities in Covid-related deaths.
MU: Trump brings up the 1994 crime bill. We all saw that one coming.
TMC: Another Democratic problem: Trump is not factually wrong on racial disparities and the crime bill. Welp. You know, if I wasn’t probably going to die under a Trump presidency, this would be mildly entertaining. The DNC has been able to spend 40 years pretending their rhetoric on race is as good as policy. Trump is being disingenuous, but he is merely exploiting a weakness that the Democrats created.
MU: Trump: You can’t even say law enforcement or you’ll lose the support of radical Democrats. Over 190 law enforcement officials have endorsed Biden.
AGR: “You can’t say the words ‘law enforcement’” is the 2020 version of “You can’t say ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’” Definitely not an accurate attack, but one that riles up Trump’s base.
MU: And gets some undecided voters nodding along too!
TMC: When Chris Wallace says “Blacks,” an angel with an Afro dies.
TMC: Donald Trump has only ever called Black people racist. Wallace giving him red meat with this critical race theory question.
MU: Trump just called racial sensitivity a sick idea.
AGR: Niche comment but: Trump’s dog-whistle is as loud as one of Puerto Rico’s tumbacocos.
TMC: I have no idea what Biden is talking about in his response to Trump’s cogent albeit racist critical race theory response. No idea.
GFR: This debate is a total mess.
MU: Ah, Biden dings Trump on the environment. It’s the first time anyone brings up the word “environment.” Reminder: The world is burning?
TMC: When does this end? This is brutal.
AGR: 11 p.m.? If we’re lucky?
GFR: This debate is very much on Trump’s turf. Law and order. Violent protests in the cities.
MU: Biden hasn’t handled the questions about Portland well.
AGR: Did we really expect Chris Wallace to not follow the Fox News talking points on this particular issue? He is not asking about the Portland protesters detained by federal officers and being thrown in unmarked vans.
GFR: Wallace just talked about Antifa!
TMC: Here’s the thing: Trump is winning. He knows how to win. He is winning this thing. The Democrats have to figure out how to do this.
GFR: Now Trump’s talking about Antifa, and Biden is talking about Antifa, and Wallace is trying to say it’s done.
GFR: All I can say is good luck to us all if Trump wins again. Because the way he’s acting on the stage tonight is going to be the way he’ll steamroll forward: unhinged, unstoppable, and unstopped.
TMC: Trump straight up boasting about court-packing is A LEWK.
MU: Trump just attacked Biden over the Obama administration’s judicial vacancies. But the reason those seats were open was largely due to Senate obstructionism.
AGR: In fact, Justice Myra C. Selby was nominated by Obama to the seat Amy Coney Barrett now occupies. Selby’s nomination was blocked by the Republican-controlled Senate. When Trump came into office, he nominated Coney Barrett.
TMC: Trump’s attack on Hunter Biden when his children are plastic surgery pods is a real trip. I’m sure the Biden campaign has some polling on how poorly counterattacks on the Trump children grift does with voters… but I would like to see it. Because he just opened that door wide and Biden went on defense about Hunter’s drug problem rather than the offensive about Trump family theft.
MU: By the way, here’s a helpful guide about Hunter Biden hoaxes.
GFR: As Jonathan Katz tweeted, Trump saying, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by” is not a condemnation, it’s an order.
Offered an opportunity to condemn white supremacy, Trump wouldn’t do it. And then he turned Biden’s moment of explaining why he should be president into an attack on Hunter Biden.
MU: They’ve moved on to climate change, and Trump is going on about forest management and the California wildfires. He’s missing the… wait for it, forest for the trees. Forest management can’t curb climate change, and, per Vox, “in his first term, Trump has blocked, weakened, or rolled back 100 environmental, public health, and worker safety regulations.” One last point on forest management, the federal government owns most of the forest land in California (58%). The State of California owns just 3%.
AGR: Trump is, um, not great at science? Here’s a handy list I compiled about his favorite scientific facts.
GFR: Well, Trump’s character has really been on display here tonight. If you were stuck in a room with someone behaving like this, how would you act?
MU: I’d have a really tough time not leaving the room and buying 900 rounds of G&Ts.
AGR: I honestly can’t tell you how I’d act, but I’m sure my mother and grandmother would pull out la chancla.
TMC: I have said it many times before and nothing has changed my mind: A person well-versed in the rhetorical art of signifying and dozens could dismantle Trump. You signify — poke his weak point with wry humor — and then pivot to policy and your talking point. You have to be quick and keep a running census of what your opponent is sensitive to. You also have to extract a line of attack from all the voluminous ranting that Trump does to overwhelm. Admittedly, doing that while also pivoting to good political rhetoric is hard but it isn’t impossible. Someone needs to exploit the figurative mistakes Trump makes when he tries to be literal. He wins by turning everything into a literal object. So, if we are in a room together, I’m roasting his ass and drinking my drink as he spins out. (Ironically, Reagan would have been able to handle Trump.)
MU: That’s really interesting. Biden clearly is not the guy for that line of attack.
AGR: Agree. That has never been Biden’s style.
GFR: The sheriff of Portland weighs in to say he does not, in fact, support Trump.
AGR: Classic Trump.
MU: Trump saying that Biden called the troops “stupid bastards,” that was clearly made in jest while he was talking to troops.
GFR: The Proud Boys are ecstatic over Trump’s mention.
AGR: The final segment! I think I just heard angels sing.
TMC: Trump’s constant attack on the legitimacy of the election is still not being taken as seriously as it should be. Again, we love to construe his comments as figurative language. It is intellectual hubris. He is not being figurative. He cannot be figurative. He literally cannot. He is being literal and we should take this very seriously.
AGR: It’s terrifying. He’s always talked about voter fraud, without any proof. But his rhetoric will likely have an impact on the election.
MU: Chris Wallace just asked if both candidates would wait until election results are independently verified. Trump wouldn’t commit to that. Biden gave an unequivocal yes.
TMC: I am going to end up disagreeing with a lot of people that I respect, but what else is new. I don’t think Trump came off as totally unhinged if you have an idea that dominance is strength. We are wrong to assume people will be naturally turned off by this. They won’t be. If this is about turnout right now, which I think it is, one side energized a base and another side courted undecideds.
AGR: I agree, Tressie. This election will come down to activating your supporters and deactivating your opponent’s. I don’t know if the lines of attack Biden took will deactivate a significant part of Trump’s base and voters who are leaning towards him. Some of the things Trump said, however, such as attacking Biden on the crime bill, might have a larger impact.
MU: I agree, sort of. I also didn’t think Biden was so bad. Honestly, the loser to me was the moderator. We need a live fact check on these things.
AGR: Man, this is definitely the worst Zoom meeting I’ve attended this year.
TMC: Well said, AGR.