The traumatizing terror of Trump's debate performance: We just witnessed an assault on democracy

In the first confrontation between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, democracy lost and the audience took a beating

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published September 30, 2020 7:57AM (EDT)

U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on September 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. This is the first of three planned debates between the two candidates in the lead up to the election on November 3. (Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on September 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. This is the first of three planned debates between the two candidates in the lead up to the election on November 3. (Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

Let's talk about trauma.

That term has made the rounds extensively over the last decade or two, and to a particularly heightened degree within the last four. No coincidence there, considering the rise of the #MeToo movement and the national televised hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, who was confirmed to the Supreme Court despite testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford alleging that he sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers.

But that event opened old wounds across the nation while also leading to profound and nuanced discussions about the lasting impact of trauma on its victims — particularly the way that trauma plays havoc with the memory save for a few horrifying details.

Trauma's shock can numb us to the horrors in which we're engulfed, sometimes to the point of creating feelings of intense disturbance around events, places and practices that are under normal circumstances completely safe. Only those who deal out trauma or deny its existence dismiss its impact — that is, if they even acknowledge they've traumatized anyone.  

If you are wondering what any of this has to do with the chaos masquerading as a presidential debate on Tuesday night, then I can only guess you fall into one of two camps. Either you weren't watching — a wise choice — or you are so accustomed to Donald Trump passing off bullying as leadership that you don't see what occurred as a problem. And, I hate to break it to you, that makes you a participant in continuing the trauma cycle.

If we're going to discuss what happened on Tuesday night, we should be honest in the terms we use: that was not civilized discourse between Trump and his challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden. It was the first of what is supposed to be three debates, but who knows if the electorate has a stomach for two more of these? Nobody won. Everybody lost, with the world watching us fail and stumble.

This one took place at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Ohio before a small audience of each candidate's family and staffers.  The setting itself might have a bitter irony to it if the confrontation's "moderator" Chris Wallace were able to get the candidates to engage in any substantive discussion about Trump's shoddy pandemic response, their differing approaches on mitigation strategies or even mask wearing. Biden's wife Jill wore a mask while sitting in the audience, as did Melania as she entered; Trump's children did not.

Only Biden seemed prepared to do any of those things. Trump came to his debate podium with his own plans, mainly a strategy to dominate airtime while knocking his opponent off-balance. His bludgeons of choice were cheap ad hominem attacks that had nothing to do with the topics at hand, and distractions from the topic of tax returns. Biden stayed on his game nevertheless, even keeping his temper in check save for the moments he took to state the obvious, as he did during Trump's attempt to bloviate as Biden talked about eliminating his administration's tax cuts.

"You're the worst president America has ever had, come on," Biden fumed.

To some, Biden's appeals to those who have lost loved ones to COVID-related illnesses are a demonstration of his sensitivity to the woes and concerns of the common man. Trump's bombastic theatrics in the face of this were a show for his base, for whom such aggressive displays are markers of strong leadership.

How do we process such derangement when it sustains itself over an hour and a half?

We can be understated, like your relative at holiday dinner who cuts the tension following a screaming match between that racist uncle and the cousin who's had enough with, "Who wants pie?" That's the tactic Fox News' Martha MacCallum adopted, describing Trump's tantrum "a tumultuous back and forth, no holds barred."

Her co-host Bret Baier, playing the part of the relative in denial about having a murderer in the family, described it thusly: "I do feel like we've been through something, and maybe you at home might feel it too."

Which is quite different from the position of CNN's Dana Bash: "That was a sh*tshow."

"We are beyond the partisan. We are beyond politics," declared her CNN coworker Van Jones. "We are in an immoral swamp of misbehavior that we wouldn't tolerate from our children in a kindergarten class."

We can be plainspoken in what the abuse in question implies, as Rachel Maddow was. "It feels like a choice between a type of civic normal politics, where there are debates, which have rules," she said "… or we have what we have seen tonight, and what this incumbent president is promising, which is a monstrous, unintelligible display of logorrhea which has absolutely nothing to do with civic discourse, with debate, or even with the integrity of the contest that they're about to approach."

Now that it's all over save for the night sweats, it's really important to understand what it was that Americans and untold millions in nations around the world were subjected to. MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace put it best when she framed it as an assault.

To her it was an assault on the senses, and she's not wrong. Debates can be tough to sit through for many reasons, and sometimes calling them crazy is a compliment. This was different. This was a televised assault on the last vestiges of decorum and whatever passes for normalcy in these deeply abnormal days we're living in. This was excruciating, like having klaxon horns taped to your ears while the cruise ship is sinking.

And while there are people who would excuse Chris Wallace for his inability to control Trump's wild bucking, Nicolle Wallace is having none of it. Neither should you. "Try driving down the freeway in a rainstorm with an eight year old in the back seat screaming," she said. "There's always something you can do…there's always something you can deprive a misbehaving child of. In this case it was Donald Trump desperate for the oxygen of airtime."

Tuesday's event was a brickbat to democratic etiquette, one that quickly got away from Chris Wallace and initially caught Biden off guard. Neither had faced this version of Trump before, a man backed into a corner but still secure in the completeness of his corruption, even with more than 206,000 Americans dead from COVID-19-related illnesses, the result of a pandemic he delayed in responding to, needlessly resulting in thousands more deaths.

This year's Trump model has shown us time and again that rules and laws don't apply to him. Therefore, his refusal to play by rules agreed upon by his team and Biden's prior to the debate should not have caught anyone flatfooted – and surely not Chris Wallace, whose previous turns as a debate moderator won him respect and acclaim from most quarters.

But Trump interrupted Biden almost constantly as Biden attempted to answer questions or respond to his opponent's statements. Furthermore, Trump blasted past Wallace's irritated admonishments that he adhere to the agreed-upon debate rules.

The Trump of 2016 that Hillary Clinton handily shredded was a game show host with a few tricks up his sleeve but no public service record and no political will backing his every move, regardless of how craven.

Today's Trump has ample experience in running roughshod over the media and distorting facts and reality itself to the point that his followers will believe his lies more than they trust science, facts and history. CNN's Daniel Dale was on deck to fact check Trump but wasn't machine-gunning correctives on Twitter as he might have been in the past, because most of the lies Trump repeated last night are among his greatest hits.

Anyway, fact checks barely matter anymore since the people who support Trump don't believe anything that doesn't come from his mouth. Cutting his mic could be a solution for future moderators, but in order for that to work he'd have to agree to it in the debate negotiations, and what's the likelihood of that happening?

The days and hours leading up to the debate were full of chatter questioning its purpose. After what we saw on Tuesday, those skeptics have a point. In elections past presidential debates served as a means of contrasting one candidate's temperament against that of his or her opponent. Ideological differences and a demonstrative confidence in one's platform play some role here, but they're really about selling the public on who these candidates are as people.

Tuesday's performance didn't illuminate anything about Trump or his leadership style that Americans didn't already know. Instead it painted Trump as "the abuser" of the proceedings, in Nicolle Wallace's words  – and, as she pointed out, that places Chris Wallace among the abused.

"This is a serious subject," Wallace said at one point, "so"… deep sigh … "let's try to be serious about it."

Wallace did what he believed he could do, asking the candidates questions about healthcare, the pandemic, race, the Supreme Court and to the surprise of many, climate change.

But Trump's chest thumping, whether via his cheap shots at Biden's intelligence or his attempts to denigrate the military record of Biden's late son Beau, or to bring up the widely discredited and unsubstantiated corruption allegations about Hunter Biden's business dealings in Ukraine, ensured that none of the important answers stuck. Instead we're still worried about the same thing he had us fretting over before the debate, which is his refusal to guarantee a peaceful transition of power.

However, as much as Biden could do so, the debate allowed him to speak directly to the audience by looking into the camera while Trump glowered at him. In those fleeting moments it might not have mattered that we couldn't absorb what either man was saying – if Biden needed to play the role of the adult in the room while his opponent was erupting in plain sight, achievement unlocked. For a sound bite or two.

Whereas Trump's method is a favorite among assailants, which is to stun.

When Chris Wallace asked Trump if he were willing to disavow white supremacy, he called out the white supremacist group the Proud Boys by name, telling them to "stand back and stand by." Later, he made the alarming suggestion that his supporters show up at polling places on election day to supervise the process.

Of course, he also made that comment during an uninterrupted two-minute closing rant devoted to undermining the election and spewing falsehoods about mail-in voting – time which, according to the debate rules he steamrolled for the previous 80-something minutes, he was allowed.

So what will we remember about Tuesday night's debate, besides the existential terror, disillusionment and resultant depression produced by watching it?

Before answering that, let's consider what we can recall about presidential debates past. Ronald Reagan won the election in 1980 with a few humorous zingers that made him seem like an amicable old guy and by asking voters a simple question: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

Mitt Romney lost in 2012 on that unforgettable "binders full of women" comment. The simplest words can be a candidate's making or undoing.

No such punchlines sealed the deal for either candidate last night, which is appropriate for a night with no winners and millions of people nursing bruised psyches. Biden might have come close when he attempted to commiserate with Wallace as Trump kept interrupting his opponent. "It's hard to get any word in with this clown," Biden said before making a theatrical feint at decorum: "...excuse me, this person."

But to Trump, the performer with a talent for seeming unproduced when the truth is quite the opposite, this election isn't about a motto or a good line, or persuasion. Tuesday's debate was meant to dissuade anyone who thinks their vote might make a difference from even trying to pry him from office -- the act of a man who Maddow explains is running against the election itself.  It was to numb us into despair and inaction. That's how abusers maintain their power over others.

As a nation we may not recall many specifics about Blasey Ford's testimony, but the line I'll never forget is this. "Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two. And their having fun at my expense."

She was referring to referring to Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge, who she recalls being present when Kavanaugh allegedly held her down and pushed his hand over her mouth.

If we're going to make it through two more of these, we're going to have to adopt a survivor's mentality, be on our guard and brace ourselves for a slightly different version of the same kind of vitriol.

It starts by refusing to call what happened on Tuesday night a debate.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Donald Trump Elections Joe Biden Presidential Debates Proud Boys Review Trauma Tv White Supremacy