Review: Democracy fails another stress test as Trump runs roughshod over debate

Debate moderator and Fox News anchor Chris Wallace at the first presidential debate in Cleveland.
Fox News anchor Chris Wallace moderates the first presidential debate in Cleveland on Tuesday.
(Pool / AFP/Getty Images)

Moderator Chris Wallace faced a grim reality moments into the first presidential debate of 2020: The system wasn’t built to handle the stress of a Donald Trump candidacy.

The president ignored the rules of Tuesday night’s debate against former Vice President Joe Biden like a petulant child, constantly interrupting, arguing with and heckling Biden, even referring to him as “Number 2.” Biden did his best to appear professional in the midst of the highly unprofessional scene, but he broke at points, fed up with his opponent’s norm-shattering conduct. “Will you shut up, man?” Biden said when he was interrupted for what felt like the billionth time. “This is so unpresidential.”

“Mr. President. Mr. President. President Trump! Please!” Wallace pleaded with Trump in an attempt to gain some semblance of control over the roughly 100-minute, live broadcast from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. But it was clear from the outset that no such thing was going to happen, on Wallace’s watch — or Trump’s.


“If you want to switch seats, we can do that,” said the exasperated 72-year-old “Fox News Sunday” host at one point, tired of being bulldozed and bullied by a defensive, red-faced Trump.

As Donald Trump and Joe Biden try to sway the rapidly vanishing “undecided voter,” 2020 is the year the presidential debates become pure TV spectacle.

Sept. 29, 2020

So much for Wallace’s hopes of being as “invisible as possible” as moderator, which he expressed in an interview the day prior. The first of three scheduled presidential debates, the night was structured around six segments, each devoted to a specific issue, including COVID-19, race and violence in America’s cities and climate change.

Each man was supposed to have two minutes to answer the question before jumping into an open exchange. It was nearly impossible to watch without feeling dread for what has become of the presidency and the democratic process. In addition to running roughshod over the debate itself, Trump loudly dog-whistled to white supremacists, doubled down on his skepticism about the legitimacy of the election, and once again failed to make a full-throated pledge for a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election.

The fact that Trump was a human battering ram with contempt for the rules of conduct likely came as no surprise to anyone, except perhaps Wallace. He appeared to have no Plan B in dealing with Trump, even though his employer Fox News knows the president better than any media outlet. At one point Wallace, son of the late “60 Minutes” correspondent Mike Wallace, even attempted to placate Trump into silence. “Mr. President, you’re going to be very happy,” he promised, teeing up a segment on “law and order.”

President Trump speaks during the first presidential debate Tuesday.
President Trump ignored the rules of Tuesday night’s debate, constantly interrupting and heckling Democratic rival Joe Biden. “Will you shut up, man?” Biden told Trump at one point.
(Getty Images)

None of Wallace’s efforts — to ingratiate himself, to plead for propriety, to interrupt back — succeeded for long. When he began asking about where Trump’s plan was to replace Obamacare, Trump began power-talking over Wallace. “Mr. President. Mr. President!” insisted Wallace. “I am the moderator of this debate, and I would like you to let me ask my question, sir. You have promised to repeal and replace Obamacare but you have never in these four years come up with a comprehensive plan.”


“I guess I’m debating you, not him,” said Trump, nodding toward Biden. “That’s OK. I’m not surprised.”

Biden might have disagreed with that assessment. The proceedings were such a mess that the Democratic challenger addressed the flaming dumpster fire on stage directly. When Wallace tossed a subject to Biden, he said: “This question goes to you first, sir. Two minutes uninterrupted.” “Good luck,” laughed Biden.

President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden faced off in Cleveland in their first presidential debate.

Sept. 29, 2020

Despite Wallace’s affiliation with Trump’s unofficial news media wing, he has not been a cheerleader for the president like some of his colleagues such as Tucker Carlson. For example, Fox’s pre-debate coverage earlier in the day included its news anchors Bill Hemmer and Bret Baier carrying water for the unfounded conspiracy theory that Biden could have a hidden mike in his ear, and that it was “interesting” Biden hadn’t agreed to an inspection.

Wallace was uncharacteristically hard on the president back in July during a Fox News interview where he asked Trump’s thoughts about a Fox poll in which respondents picked Biden as the more mentally competent candidate. Trump responded at the time, in a moment that went viral online, by bragging about a difficult cognitive assessment he “aced”: “It’s not the hardest test,” replied Wallace, who said he took the exam and one of the questions was as simple as correctly identifying a picture of an elephant.

Tuesday’s debate was a much uglier affair, even for a seasoned newsman like Wallace, who served as assistant to legendary anchorman Walter Cronkite during the 1964 Republican National Convention. He struggled to maintain a sense of normalcy, but with Trump on the ropes thanks to lagging poll numbers and damaging personal income tax records, the tone was dark, even compared to the 2016 debates, and the cross-talk was impenetrable. There was little to no hope of turning the broken exchange into something that remotely resembled a presidential debate.

“It’s been an interesting hour and a half,” said Wallace at the close of the broadcast, which left Americans with one clear loser: the democratic process.