‘That,’ said CNN anchor Jake Tapper, looking like he’d just swallowed a rotten egg, ‘was a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck… the worst debate I have ever seen; in fact, it wasn’t even a debate. It was a disgrace.’
Incredibly, if anything he understated the full horror of last night’s first presidential showdown of this US election cycle between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
Tapper’s colleague Dana Bash, a lady not given to hyperbole or profanity, said simply: ‘It was a sh*t-show.’
Even that was being generous.
I got up at 2am in the UK to watch it, and can honestly say, hand on heart and without fear of contradiction, that it was the single most embarrassing and unedifying spectacle in the history of modern American politics.
Which, when you think President Bill Clinton was caught lying about having cigar sex with a 22-year-old White House intern in the Oval Office, is quite something.
Last night’s first presidential showdown of this US election cycle between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was the single most embarrassing and unedifying spectacle in the history of modern American politics
The President basically brought his Twitter game to the debate – a relentless bombastic bombardment of abuse, personal jibes, self-justifying tripe and blatant falsehoods. But awful as Trump was, Biden could and should have done so much more to counter and exploit the flailing president
Trump, even by his legendarily barbaric debate standards, was repellent.
The President basically brought his Twitter game to the debate – a relentless bombastic bombardment of abuse, personal jibes, self-justifying tripe and blatant falsehoods.
In the worst of many awful moments, he refused to condemn white supremacists, and when specifically challenged about the Proud Boys, a vile racist homophobic transphobic misogynist group of violent bigots, he replied: ‘Proud Boys, stand back and stand by!’
This astonishing dog-whistle response was immediately, sickeningly, and entirely unsurprisingly, embraced by the group as a formal public presidential endorsement and call to arms.
In another horribly ugly exchange, Trump interrupted Biden as he spoke movingly about his late war hero son Beau, to smear his other son: ‘I didn’t know Beau. I know Hunter. Hunter got thrown out of the military. He was thrown out, dishonorably discharged for cocaine use.’
This, like so much Trump spewed last night, isn’t true. Hunter was discharged but not dishonorably.
But regardless of whether it was true or not, to ignore a man praising his beloved son who died of a brain tumour just so Trump could deride his other boy was a disgusting low blow move that will have surely revolted any viewer with even a half sense of decency.
The President even mocked Biden for wearing face masks to ward off Covid-19, as if somehow that is something a responsible citizen should be ridiculed for doing when over 200,000 Americans have already died from the virus.
I wish I could say any of this abhorrent conduct shocked me.
But it was just Trump being Trump, albeit at his most bestial and in a manner that made even own team uncomfortable.
‘It was too hot,’ said Governor Chris Christie, who helped the president prepare for the debate. ‘With all that heat, you lose the light.’
You think, Governor?
As for moderator Chris Wallace, one of the most respected figures in American media, I’m sorry to say he lost control, and the plot, allowing Trump to dominate proceedings like an overgrown playground bully and consequently letting the debate collapse into an almost unwatchable charade
To me, as someone said on Twitter, Trump resembled a drunken heckler at a comedy club who keeps hammering the acts thinking everyone’s cheering him on – when in fact they just want the nasty chuntering bore thrown out.
But awful though he was, Biden could and should have done so much more to counter and exploit the flailing president.
Instead, the Democrat nominee was weak and ineffectual throughout the debate, failing to land any real blows on Trump even as America reels from his diabolical handling of the pandemic which has led to the worst coronavirus death toll in the world and the worst economic collapse too.
The challenger struggled with statistics, as he often has in this campaign, mumbled incoherently at times, and frankly did little to dispel persistent Republican-fuelled rumours that he is battling the early onset of senility.
I also found Biden’s constant weird ‘Joker’ style mocking laughter, even at very serious moments, inappropriate and grating.
The cackling was clearly a pre-planned strategy, but it didn’t work.
He should have stayed serious, statesmanlike and firmly above the raging bull Trump fray.
Americans are really suffering right now, losing loved ones and livelihoods in vast numbers.
They don’t want laughter in a debate to decide who to vote for in November – they want leadership, empathy and reassurance.
And that was all in chronically short supply last night.
Biden’s biggest mistake was to descend to Trump’s level.
He is supposed to be the man who’s going to bring civility back to the American presidency.
Yet last night, we heard Mr Nice Guy call Trump a ‘clown’, a ‘racist’ and a ‘liar’, tell him to ‘shut up’, and sneer at him to ‘keep yapping.’
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump on stage at the debate, along with Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden
That’s not civil, that’s just behaving the same way Mr Bad Guy behaves.
As for moderator Chris Wallace, one of the most respected figures in American media, I’m sorry to say he lost control, and the plot, allowing Trump to dominate proceedings like an overgrown playground bully and consequently letting the debate collapse into an almost unwatchable charade.
Some supporters of the Fox News host said there was nothing he could do given how outrageously Trump was behaving.
But there was.
As Watergate legend Carl Bernstein tweeted during the unfurling fiasco: ‘Chris Wallace needs to shut Trump down and insist he follow rules… and, as moderator, enforce them… stop the debate for 60 secs and lay down the rules.’
That, in the end, is what any debate moderator is supposed to do: ask the questions and enforce the rules.
By failing to do the latter, Wallace ruined the debate for the millions watching at home.
In any rotten food fight, the winner is the one who emerges from the fray with the least amount of putrid gastronomic garbage smothering his face and torso.
By that very low yardstick, Biden won – as most post-debate polls confirmed.
But the sad, dismal truth is that nobody really won.
Biden’s reputation for civility was damaged by his ill-advised and dumb mudslinging.
Trump’s chances of winning over independent voters – who will be key to his presidential survival – were mauled by his 90-minute freak show performance.
And Chris Wallace’s image as a smart, tough newsman was seriously dented by his abject failure to control the mayhem.
Most seriously of all, the shambles did a massive disservice to America and the American people.
This US presidential debate was watched all over the planet and couldn’t have been a worse advertisement for the self-acclaimed greatest superpower.
Watching the two election candidates trade pathetic insults like squabbling schoolkids at such a critical time for the country and the world was an excruciating, shameful and humiliating debacle that demeaned everyone involved.
Joe Biden may have ‘won’, but by so foolishly choosing to lie down with rabid attack dog Trump, and play him at his own name-calling game, he sadly ensured we all got up with fleas.