Donald Trump and Joe Biden debated. Americans cringed.
After the presidential candidates put on one of the noisiest, most chaotic debates in recent memory, voters across the country struggled for words, “printable words” to describe the display.
Many went first to profanities. Others landed on more polite, but still biting, terms for the live, prime-time event, long considered evidence of the rigors of US democracy: “A joke”, “a disgrace” and “so disrespectful.”
“I was sad. It was sad, and it was very pathetic”, said Rickey Hampton, as the 54-year-old stood inside the doorway of his Las Vegas apartment.
It was another day of reckoning with the nation’s rapidly transforming political culture and its seemingly irreparable divisions.
In interviews with voters across key states in the contest, those who watched the spectacle nearly unanimously recoiled from it.
Many said Trump was the instigator, whose frequent interruptions blew up the rules and any pretense that the men were there to discuss policy.
None said it would change their minds on how they planned to vote. Instead, voters on both sides said it only reaffirmed their positions.
Hampton, who works at a tuxedo and tailoring shop in Las Vegas, said that the president’s decorum was “not presidential at all” and that he appeared to speak only to his base of supporters, not to the American people.
Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacy reaffirmed for him as a Black man that voting is not enough, he must urge other people, specifically his Black friends and family, to vote, something he doesn’t normally do, he said.
“This is really life or death, and he’s letting you know”, Hampton said. “This is serious. … You have to vote. You really have to get out there. This is different.”
In Wisconsin, Donald Darwin, a 52-year-old white man, heard something different from the president, saying he felt he appropriately condemned white supremacists when asked about it by moderator Chris Wallace.
“Trump said exactly what Wallace asked him to say. He told them to stand down,” said the engineer from Wautoma.
He acceded the debate appeared to get out of hand at times, but he stopped well short of faulting Trump and praised him as “a fighter.”
“This election is incredibly important. If Trump were to give an inch, you can bet Biden and the left would have savaged him over it”, he said.
Keith Valentine, a 37-year-old Las Vegas Democrat, said the president behaved like “a narcissist”, and he turned off his television after watching the debate for about 10 minutes. “We knew it was going to be like that for an hour.”
Valentine, who is reluctantly voting for Biden, said he wasn’t shocked by what he saw and dismissed the idea that it was “nastiness” on display. “That is two old people, two rich people bickering”, he said.
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