President Trump made history last night, becoming the first sitting president to refuse to denounce white supremacy when directly asked to condemn it.
In response to a question from Fox News moderator Chris Wallace about whether he would denounce white supremacists, militias, or right-wing vigilante groups like the Proud Boys, the president stalled, claiming he’d be willing to condemn anyone but not calling out any specific group.
Instead, he claimed that “almost everything I’m seeing” in terms the civil unrest that has plagued the country in recent months has been “from the left-wing.”
“What do you want to call them? Give me a name,” Trump said to Wallace. “Who would you like me to condemn? Who?”
“Proud Boys,” Vice President Joe Biden offered, referencing the far-right neo-fascist group.
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump replied. “But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem.”
Following his refusal to denounce them, the Proud Boys pledged allegiance to Trump, with one known social media account incorporating “Stand Back. Stand By” as part of its new logo.
The president’s refusal to condemn a group that actively supports him, regardless of their problematic past actions or comments, was a feature, not a bug, of an erratic debate performance in which he frequently interrupted both Wallace and Biden, breaking debate rules to which his own campaign team had previously agreed.
Trump ranted about right-wing conspiracy theories, blamed unfair media coverage for his sagging approval rating, recited debunked talking points that serve as catnip to Republican base voters, and lobbed insults at Biden — even, at one point, taking a step that appalled many pundits by knocking Biden’s son Hunter for his past drug problems. (Biden responded by looking directly at the camera and saying, “My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem. He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him.”)
The debating styles of the two men were on full display throughout the night. Trump was the aggressor, forceful, belligerent, frequently raising his voice and unleashing inflammatory statements. Biden was resolute, soft-spoken, deliberate in his responses — frequently made directly to camera and the viewers at home — and occasionally cracked a smile and shook his head in disbelief at some of Trump’s more outlandish claims.
Throughout much of the ninety-minute debate, Biden tried to avoid acknowledging Trump’s more bizarre claims, often circling back to focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn, which he accused Trump of mismanaging.
But even he occasionally showed signs that the president’s boorish behavior and frequent interruptions got under his skin, asking Wallace “Will he just shush for a moment?” at one point when Trump interrupted him, and calling him a “fool,” a “clown” and even telling the president to “shut up.”
Wallace, a Fox News personality who had previously promised not to “fact-check” the candidates in real time, was never able to take command of the debate, which careened out of control from the very first segment.
Biden’s strongest moment was in his second-to-last statement about the legitimacy of the election and the high numbers of mail-in ballots expected to be cast, urging Americans to be calm and patient when awaiting the final vote tallies, to ensure their vote is counted, and, ultimately, to vote.
“Show up and vote. You will determine the outcome of this election. Vote, vote, vote. If you’re able to vote early in your state, vote early. If you’re able to vote in person, vote in person. Vote whatever way is the best way for you. Because he cannot stop you from being able to determine the outcome of this election,” Biden said, gesturing to Trump, repeatedly cast doubt on the validity of mail-in ballots.
Reaction to the evening ranged from shock, to exasperation, to disdain from cable news pundits. CNN’s Jake Tapper called the debate “a hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck,” telling fellow CNN personality Wolf Blitzer that it was “the worst debate I have ever seen.”
“It wasn’t even a debate,” Tapper added. “It was a disgrace. And it was primarily because of President Trump.”
CNN’s Dana Bash offers a more concise analysis, calling the debate a “shitshow.”
“Apologies for being a little bit crude, but that is the phrase I’m getting from people on both sides of the aisle via text, and it’s the only phrase I can think of to really describe it,” she said.
Meet the Press host Chuck Todd put the blame on Trump’s shoulders, calling the debate a ““train wreck of the making of one person. We know who did it. President Trump did this. And in some way, it’s the only way he knows what to do. He bulldozed over Chris Wallace, bulldozed and, at times, flustered Joe Biden.”
The Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ rights organization that has endorsed Biden, blasted Trump for trying to “bully his way through” the debate, calling him “desperate” and “deranged.”
“He could not articulate a single plan for our nation, failed to condemn white supremacists yet again, and proved his strategy is to continue to spread disinformation in order to suppress voter turnout,” HRC President Alphonso David said of Trump’s performance. “He disrespected our nation and our democracy by treating this debate like a circus. Our democracy is at stake and Trump’s sideshow was a clown show and a mockery of our nation.”
See our past debate coverage:
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