Trump skewered himself at the first presidential debate while Biden watched and smiled

It became clear that four years of living in a MAGA-hat safe space had taken its toll on The Donald, who wasn’t expecting his opponent to be so sharp

Holly Baxter
New York
Monday 05 October 2020 17:32 BST
Joe Biden tells Donald Trump to 'shut up'

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


“You are the worst president America’s ever had, come on,” said Biden, a megawatt smile on his face, fifteen minutes into the most awkward presidential debate in history. Needless to say, it had become clear at that point that the format wasn’t exactly working for Trump, a man much more suited to shouting dog-whistles into large rallies or, perhaps, screaming semi-coherently into the void. "That was a really productive segment, wasn’t it? Keep yapping, man,” Biden quipped at his opponent after a question about the Supreme Court descended into the President of the United States yelling, “You graduated last in your class!” It was, truly, a sight to behold.

Oh dear, oh dear, Donald. Months and months of “Sleepy Joe Biden”, of “dementia Joe”, of the conspiracy theories about Bernie Sanders and AOC pulling strings behind the scenes while a hapless, braindead centrist took orders. Now it looks a bit…well… silly, doesn’t it? As Biden smiled and laughed and kept his cool, Trump worked himself up into a fit of rage, refused to condemn white supremacists, and suggested that the Proud Boys should “stand by”. His body language said it all as he gestured, pointed and violently shrugged when picked up on inconsistencies and, at some points, outright lies“You would’ve killed more people” was his answer to Biden bringing up his terrible record on the Covid-19 pandemic. “I was being sarcastic” was his answer to an aside about the time he suggested people might want to inject bleach to prevent the same virus. “I was a private business people!” he protested (yes, “people”) during a discussion about the now-infamous New York Times tax story that broke over the weekend. “If you could get the crowds you’d do the same thing” was all he could interject when Biden asked about social distancing at his notorious rallies.

By halfway through, it became clear that even moderator Chris Wallace — who frankly looked and sounded more presidential than either of the two at the podiums — was exhausted. “No, Mr President, I’m asking you a question,” he said, in the tone of an exasperated parent whose problematic toddler has just emptied his potty on the floor for the twelfth time that day. “You know, sir, if you want to switch seats…” he sighed, when Trump interrupted him again during segments which were supposed to be strictly timed. “I hate to raise my voice,” he said later, when the presidential potty had filled up to the brim again, “but the answer to the question [of whether you can take more time] is no.” When all semblance of normality had gone out the window, Wallace eventually uttered some final words of resignation: “I’m going to ask you a question about race but if you want to answer something else then fine. But don’t you think the country would be better served if you answered the one I actually asked?”

The moment when Trump knew it really wasn’t going his way must have been when he started producing such weak comebacks as, “I bet you play more than me, Joe,” as Biden described how the president had gone on golfing vacations rather than address issues of mounting political urgency. Without a group of supporters, he bounced from one familiar topic to the next — socialism, Antifa, fake news, Hunter Biden, law and order — with an increasing look of panic in his eyes. “You used the word smart? Graduated almost the lowest in your class. Don’t ever use the word smart with me,” he said, but nobody in the audience (who had been told to stay silence) or onstage reacted. He cancelled mandatory racial sensitivity training for public servants because the training was “radical,” spread “very bad ideas and frankly very sick ideas” and was “teaching people to hate our country,” he claimed, and again, no one waved an American flag and cheered. Biden kept on smiling, smiling, smiling through it all.

Was this a scintillating display of awesome intellectual rigor? Hardly. At times, it felt like two grandfathers disagreeing over the Christmas dinner table about whose turn it is to do the carving. Nevertheless, it was clear that Trump’s four years of coddling himself in a safe space of MAGA hat-wearing Donald enthusiasts had taken its toll. He expected it to be easier than it was, and he often looked foolish. Biden is not exactly a high-energy debater, but he rarely comes away looking like a fool.

All the Trump followers who expected Biden to turn up half-senile and unable to say his own name will have had a rude awakening tonight. Trump set the bar low for his opponent by painting him as a doddery old man and it didn’t pay off. Meanwhile, Biden’s own humorous interjections — “I’m not here to check on his lies, since everyone knows he’s a liar,” “Would you shush for a minute?”, “Will you shut up, man?”, and the incredulous, “This guy!” — each time Trump interrupted him came across as so relatable that “Will you shut up, man?” merchandise (including some very fetching T-shirts) became available online before the debate had even ended.

The times when Biden was strongest was when he turned to the camera and directly addressed the people watching at home. It was clearly an agreed-upon tactic and it worked. When Trump tried to usher in a slanging match about people’s family members, Biden turned and said, “This isn’t about his family or my family, it’s about your family.” When they talked about finances and Trump fluffed his lines about taxes, Biden wanted to know what “you all in Scranton” and other small towns think about “millionaires and billionaires” becoming richer during coronavirus. And when he asked Americans to “close your eyes and think of Charlottesville,” what came next was a very affecting speech about where the country has descended — and how the President benefits from divisiveness.

“As far as the ballots are concerned, it’s a disaster,” said Trump in the final segment, during which he refused to commit to a full peaceful transition or an acceptance of an independently declared election result. “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen… It’s a fraud! And it’s a shame!”

A few seconds later, the President simply shook his head and added, “This is not going to end well.” It was the truest sentence he’d spoken all night.

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