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No one on TV can believe what happened last night

From pundits to comedians, everyone was left dizzy by the presidential debate

trump vs biden first 2020 presidential debate on TV at a bar Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

On Tuesday night, reportedly upwards of 300,000 viewers tuned in to Twitch to watch the match of the century: President Donald Trump vs. Vice President Joe Biden. For 90 minutes, the two presidential nominees used varying degrees of blunt force to make their cases, in hopes of wooing any remaining undecided voters in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election.

Over the course of the night, President Trump lied about his work over the past four years, berated Biden over his political alignment (prompting the VP to at one point exclaim, “Will you shut up, man?”), and, when asked to denounce white supremacy, had nothing to say. For all the nightly mayhem on Twitch’s platform, this was quite unlike anything anyone had ever seen.

On traditional airwaves, the presidential debate was also event TV, albeit without the luxury of a chat room to make sense of things. The first of what will be three Trump-Biden encounters was seismic, and the rumble was felt well into the night. “Had there ever been anything like that on national television?” many wondered aloud in the aftermath, mouths agape.

This was not the first time pundits and late-night hosts were on standby to deliver meteorological reports on the Trumpian maelstrom. But unlike his performances in 2016, the erratic rage of the event left on-air professionals aghast and speechless. Clips went viral on every platform. Quotes hung in the air. So little policy discussion was allowed to escape the black hole of the stage, and the cacophony of Trump’s arguments was so overbearing, that many were left unable to even fact-check the debate for audiences looking to make sense of things.

“That was a shitshow,” CNN correspondent Dana Bash told Jake Tapper after the debate. “We’re on cable. We can say it. Apologies for being crude. But that is really the phrase I’m getting from people on both sides of the aisle on text, and the only phrase I can think of to describe it.”

Color of Change president and regular talking head Rashad Robinson took to MSNBC to weigh the gravity of Trump’s inability to denounce white supremacy. On a national stage, the moment was just unheard of.

Van Jones delivered an even more heartbreaking breakdown of the matter on CNN. And for all the commentary swirling around the news ecosphere, all he really had to do was reiterate what happened on stage so the reality could sink in.

Even Fox News, which wrote that the debate “lacked any real substance that could change attitudes in any meaningful way,” struggled to build a narrative out of the event. Instead, the network had President Trump’s son in conversation with Sean Hannity, playing the hits. (Number-crunchers predict that Fox News, which had record-breaking viewership this past summer, will also win the ratings game for the debate.)

After an expulsion of 24-hour news takes, it was late-night comedy’s turn to find anything lighthearted in the void. Multiple Jimmys tried. The collar-grabbing gags said it all.

“Honestly, sitting through that debate felt like getting a COVID test in both nostrils at once,” said Jimmy Fallon. How far we’ve come from mussing up Trump’s hair.

“I’d call it a nightmare,” Jimmy Kimmel said in his opening monologue, “but at least during a nightmare you get some sleep.” The comedian recruited Sen. Bernie Sanders to weigh in on the proceedings, but again, there wasn’t much to say.

“If you missed the debate, I’m going to give you a quick recap of what happened,” Trevor Noah declared on his quarantine-friendly Daily Show, before screaming into his microphone, and the abyss. “We should let these guys physically wrestle each other.”

Of the hosts, Stephen Colbert leaned in the hardest, acting truly blown back by Trump’s take on white supremacy and the overall lack of coherence between the president, Biden, and moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News.

“Yes, tonight saw the best minds of our generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical, naked, dragging themselves through the streets at dawn, looking for the mute button!” Colbert said in his monologue. “Forget fact-checking this debate — we couldn’t even do any sentence-finding. I never thought I’d say this, but I am so looking forward to the vice-presidential debate. I mean, for Pete’s sake, children watched that. I’m glad I’ve already had my children, because I think just watching that sterilized me. [...] Ultimately, I think the American people were hurt tonight.”

Very little television can bring the splintered audiences of America together these days. When it does, there’s hope that it’ll deliver some unified thrill, or at least a provocative challenge for the next day’s Slack chat. A presidential debate should, in theory, work in the same way. There should be something to talk about.

The first 2020 presidential debate was, quite possibly, the most Nothing that has ever occurred on television. So much so that no one — on the left, on the right, or those in charge of our escapism — seems capable of believing what happened last night.

The next presidential debate will take place on Oct. 15. The vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris is set for Oct. 7.

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