Updated: September 30, 2020 8:47:58 pm
The first of three presidential debates between US President Donald Trump and his Democratic contender Joe Biden was unprecedented. The 90-minute event quickly grew chaotic as the candidates — President Trump in particular — resorted to heckling and talking over Biden while debating contentious issues such as the coronavirus pandemic, racial tensions and the economy.
The debate has received scathing reviews and reactions from political commentators, some of whom have gone as far as calling it “a disgusting night for democracy” and a “national humiliation”.
Commentators and experts across the board agreed that the real losers of the night were the American voters. The Atlantic staff writer James Fallows pointed out that the moderator, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, should have known that Trump would come prepared to steamroll Biden through the debate.
“Maybe Wallace was caught by surprise by Trump’s bellicosity and primate-dominance. (But—c’mon.) Even so, two or three minutes of this should have been enough to adjust. He didn’t adjust. And he let Trump roll over him,” he wrote in The Atlantic. “For tonight I’ll say this was a disgusting moment for democracy.”
— Really American 🇺🇸 (@ReallyAmerican1) September 30, 2020
The Guardian’s Washington DC bureau chief David Smith described Wallace as a “school supply teacher, hopelessly out of his depth as unruly children run riot”, who failed to enforce the rules during the debate or cut the US Presidents mic when he repeatedly interrupted Biden. “Donald Trump ensured Tuesday’s first US presidential debate was the worst in American history, a national humiliation,” he wrote.
Trump was widely regarded as a playground bully, who refused to back down and fired unnecessarily personal attacks in an attempt to derail Biden.
“He mocked Joe Biden’s mask-wearing and intellectual firepower and seemed more interested in running against the caricature of his opponent than the man himself, once insisting that Mr. Biden supports defunding the police moments after the Democratic nominee made clear he did not,” wrote New York Times’ Matt Flagenheimer and Maggie Haberman.
But the most controversial moment of the night was when President Trump refused to explicitly denounce white supremacists and even directed the far-right group ‘The Proud Boys’ to “stand back and stand by.”
A big takeaway from the first presidential debate: Trump once again refused to condemn white supremacists. Watch his answer when asked directly to do it: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”
— POLITICO (@politico) September 30, 2020
Writing for Politico, John F Harris pointed out that Biden had little choice but to either stick to the rules of the debate and stay mum during Trump’s tirade of abuse or add to the chaos. While he opted for the former for most of the debate, there were points when he appeared to have lost his cool. “Will you shut up, man,” he exclaimed, before resignedly saying, “This is so unpresidential.”
— TIME (@TIME) September 30, 2020
“No need to be priggish about things. In some ways it can be entertaining to see politicians drop all pretense and start hurling their own waste at each other like primates at the zoo. But the intensity and unrelenting nature of the rudeness quickly ceased to be interesting and became simply depressing,” Harris wrote.
The Wall Street Journal called it a “messy debate with multiple attacks”. “Joe Biden gave a more forceful performance than the low expectations set for him by the president and his allies,” the Wall Street Journal’s White House reporter Rebecca Ballhaus wrote.