The Debate

Heather Cox Richardson

Tonight was the first debate between President Joe Biden and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, and by far the most striking thing about the debate was the overwhelming focus among pundits immediately afterward about Biden’s appearance and soft, hoarse voice as he rattled off statistics and events. Virtually unmentioned was the fact that Trump lied and rambled incoherently, ignored questions to say whatever he wanted; refused to acknowledge the events of January 6, 2021; and refused to commit to accepting the result of the 2024 presidential election, finally saying he would accept it only if it met his standards for fairness. 

Immediately after the debate, there were calls for Biden to drop out of the race, but aside from the fact that the only time a presidential candidate has ever done that—in 1968—it threw the race into utter confusion and the president’s party lost, Biden needed to demonstrate that his mental capacity is strong in order to push back on the Republicans’ insistence that he is incapable of being president. That, he did, thoroughly. Biden began with a weak start but hit his stride as the evening wore on. Indeed, he covered his bases too thoroughly, listing the many accomplishments of his administration in such a hurry that he was sometimes hard to understand. 

In contrast, Trump came out strong but faded and became less coherent over time. His entire performance was either lies or rambling non-sequiturs. He lied so incessantly throughout the evening that it took CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale almost three minutes, speaking quickly, to get through the list. 

Trump said that some Democratic states allow people to execute babies after they’re born and that every legal scholar wanted Roe v. Wade overturned—both fantastical lies. He said that the deficit is at its highest level ever and that the U.S. trade deficit is at its highest ever: both of those things happened during his administration. He lied that there were no terrorist attacks during his presidency; there were many. He said that Biden wants to quadruple people’s taxes—this is “pure fiction,” according to Dale—and lied that his tax cuts paid for themselves; they have, in fact, added trillions of dollars to the national debt. 

Dale went on: Trump lied that the U.S. has provided more aid to Ukraine than Europe has when it’s the other way around, and he was off by close to $100 billion when he named the amount the U.S. has provided to Ukraine. He was off by millions when he talked about how many migrants have crossed the border under Biden, and falsely claimed that some of Biden’s policies—like funding historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and reducing the price of insulin to $35 a month—were his own accomplishments.

There is no point in going on, because virtually everything he said was a lie. As Jake Lahut of the Daily Beast recorded, he also was all over the map. “On January 6,” Trump said, “we had a great border.” To explain how he would combat opioid addiction, he veered off into talking points about immigration and said his administration “bought the best dog.” He boasted about acing a cognitive test and that he had just recently won two golf club tournaments without mentioning that they were at his own golf courses. “To do that, you have to be quite smart and you have to be able to hit the ball a long way,” he said. “I can do it.” 

As Lahut recorded, Trump said this: “Clean water and air. We had it. We had the H2O best numbers ever, and we were using all forms of energy during my 4 years. Best environmental numbers ever, they gave me the statistic [sic.] before I walked on stage actually.”

Trump also directly accused Biden of his own failings and claimed Biden’s own strengths, saying, for example, that Biden, who has enacted the most sweeping legislation of any president since at least Lyndon Johnson, couldn’t get anything done while he, who accomplished only tax cuts, was more effective. He responded to the calling out of his own criminal convictions by saying that Biden “could be a convicted felon,” and falsely stating: “This man is a criminal.” And, repeatedly, Trump called America a “failing nation” and described it as a hellscape.

It went on and on, and that was the point. This was not a debate. It was Trump using a technique that actually has a formal name, the Gish gallop, although I suspect he comes by it naturally. It’s a rhetorical technique in which someone throws out a fast string of lies, non-sequiturs, and specious arguments, so many that it is impossible to fact-check or rebut them in the amount of time it took to say them. Trying to figure out how to respond makes the opponent look confused, because they don’t know where to start grappling with the flood that has just hit them.

It is a form of gaslighting, and it is especially effective on someone with a stutter, as Biden has. It is similar to what Trump did to Biden during a debate in 2020. In that case, though, the lack of muting on the mics left Biden simply saying: “Will you shut up, man?” a comment that resonated with the audience. Giving Biden the enforced space to answer by killing the mic of the person not speaking tonight actually made the technique more effective.

There are ways to combat the Gish gallop—by calling it out for what it is, among other ways—but Biden retreated to trying to give the three pieces of evidence that established his own credentials on the point at hand. His command of those points was notable, but the difference between how he sounded at the debate and how he sounded on stage at a rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, just an hour afterward suggested that the technique worked on him. 

That’s not ideal, but as Monique Pressley put it, “The proof of Biden’s ability to run the country is the fact that he is running it. Successfully. Not a debate performance against a pathological lying sociopath.” 

A much bigger deal is what it says that the television media and pundits so completely bought into Trump’s performance. They appear to have accepted Trump’s framing of the event—that he is dominant—so fully that the fact Trump unleashed a flood of lies and non-sequiturs simply didn’t register. And, since the format established that the CNN journalists running the debate did not challenge anything either candidate said, and Dale’s fact-checking spot came long after the debate ended, the takeaway of the event was a focus on Biden’s age rather than on Trump’s inability to tell the truth or form a coherent thought. 

At the end of the evening, pundits were calling not for Trump—a man liable for sexual assault and business fraud, convicted of 34 felonies, under three other indictments, who lied pathologically—to step down, but for Biden to step down…because he looked and sounded old. At 81, Biden is indeed old, but that does not distinguish him much from Trump, who is 78 and whose inability to answer a question should raise concerns about his mental acuity. 

About the effect of tonight’s events, former Republican operative Stuart Stevens warned: “Don’t day trade politics. It’s a sucker’s game. A guy from Queens out on bail bragged about overturning Roe v. Wade, said in public he didn’t have sex with a porn star, defended tax cuts for billionaires, defended Jan. 6th. and called America the worst country in the world. That guy isn’t going to win this race.”

Trump will clearly have pleased his base tonight, but Stevens is right to urge people to take a longer view. It’s not clear whether Trump or Biden picked up or lost votes; different polls gave the win to each, and it’s far too early to know how that will shake out over time. 

Of far more lasting importance than this one night is the clear evidence that stage performance has trumped substance in political coverage in our era. Nine years after Trump launched his first campaign, the media continues to let him call the shots. 

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