Can a ‘national disgrace’ of a presidential debate really change anybody’s mind?

How do reporters respond when everything onstage and off seems a bit… well… mad?

Phil Thomas
New York
Thursday 01 October 2020 00:21 BST
Chris Wallace admitted he lost control of the first presidential debate and called the chaotic night “a terrible missed opportunity.”
Chris Wallace admitted he lost control of the first presidential debate and called the chaotic night “a terrible missed opportunity.” (AFP via Getty Images)

While The Independent’s team was covering one of Donald Trump’s regular rallies last week, beamed live from an airport hangar in Pennsylvania, a colleague messaged me to say: “First one of these I’ve watched in a long time, it really is mad.”

Having witnessed most of Trump’s public appearances over the past year and a half, this gave me pause for thought. I had been struggling for inspiration that night as the great showman went through the same old routines: the racist insults, the blatant fibs, the self-pitying grievances, the needy self-aggrandisement. What lines should we journalists pounce on that people haven’t heard a hundred times before?

But, of course, taking a step back, my colleague was objectively right: it was all a bit mad. It’s difficult to think of another world leader behaving in such a way, not least one accused of ignoring epoch-changing crises – a pandemic, economic meltdown, climate catastrophe – on his own doorstep.

Which brings us to Tuesday night’s presidential debate, the first of three between the incumbent and his challenger, Joe Biden. Reviews of this much-anticipated moment in the hallowed cycle of the world’s greatest democracy ran the gamut from “national disgrace” to “s***show”. Even the country’s two leading newspapers, The Washington Post and the New York Times, who are sometimes accused of both-sides-ing Trump’s worst antics, refused to mince their words.

“Trump hectoring upends debate as he attacks integrity of election,” bellowed the Gray Lady; “Trump plunges debate into fiery squabbling,” bemoaned the Post.

The Independent’s Griffin Connolly, in his analysis of the event, contrasted the president’s wild performance to his already notorious appearances in the debates against Hillary Clinton four years ago.

Connolly wrote: “2016 Trump was nothing compared to 2020 Trump.”

Which raises the question of how this all must have looked to the millions of voters who aren’t already so submerged in Trumpworld that they have come to find his hellzapoppin’ rallies repetitive. After all, if even seasoned journalists found Trump’s behaviour over-the-top, what did the non-politics junkies out there think?

One focus group run by veteran pollster Frank Luntz, consisting of 15 undecided voters from battleground states, described their current president as “unhinged”, “arrogant”, “a bully” and “un-American”. Biden’s task was like “trying to win an argument with a crackhead”, said one participant.

Case closed? Well, no (could anything be so simple in 2020?) While four of the 15 said they now backed Biden, two said Trump’s performance had convinced them he was their man. “Luke from Wisconsin” acknowledged that Trump was “annoying and un-presidential” but still preferred his stance on law and order and the economy. The other nine professed themselves still unsure.

Trump’s victory was so narrow in 2016 that every vote will count come November. Fortunately we have the edifying prospect of two more presidential debates – and a vice-presidential one – to look forward to. Perhaps one of these might nudge the nine fence-sitters, and thousands like them in those swing states, into a firmer opinion on the future of the world.


Phil Thomas

US assistant editor

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