On one channel, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. On the other, a rerun of Celebrity Deathmatch. Or, at least, that’s how it felt.
After more than a week of inter-campaign sniping, furious Twitter denouncements, fretful consultations with public health experts, and a last-minute surprise scheduling coup, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden squared off on dueling town hall stages—one on NBC, the other on ABC.
In a matchup that was head-to-head rather than face-to-face, the two presidential contenders did less to paint their pictures of the America they hope to lead than they did exemplify the two sides of the America we’re all stuck in: the fatigued, and the furious.
The level of energy in Biden’s town hall was like a rip in the space-time continuum that transported the viewer to an Al Gore presidency, where every response was given in exhaustive detail and every question was asked without a quick Google to see if the answer might just be on the Biden campaign website.
But beyond the aspects of the appearance that reminded viewers of an uncanned stump speech—regular anecdotes about his childhood in Claymont, Delaware, where “you either became a cop, a firefighter or a priest,” were peppered throughout the evening—were the parts where Biden seemed to genuinely care if the person he was addressing felt heard, regardless of whether, as in Trump’s town hall, they were subtly hitting on him.
Speaking to the mother of a trans girl worried about legalized discrimination against LGBTQ people that has flourished under the Trump administration, Biden repeated another well-worn (and possibly apocryphal) campaign anecdote about seeing a same-sex couple showing public affection as a young boy, but returned at the end to the woman who posed the question.
“There is no reason to suggest that there should be any right denied your daughter…that your other daughter has a right to be and do. None, zero.”
When Cedric Humphrey, a Black student from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, referenced Biden’s “you ain’t Black” remark in a question about how to win young Black voters, Biden spent nearly ten minutes discussing education funding, small business loans and home ownership, even parrying Stephanopoulous’ interjection attempting to move the subject along. He promised to discuss the matter further after the town hall’s conclusion, a promise that, according to reporters inside the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, he kept for more than half an hour after the event ended.
“I hope I answered your question,” Biden told Humphrey at the end of his answer, a phrase he said repeatedly over the course of the night, usually at the end of answers that practically groaned under the weight of the bullet points he’d stuffed into them.
Even when faced with the prospect of losing the race—his third for the White House, and likely the last major campaign of a 47-year career in politics—Biden reacted with a calm that seemed almost alien to viewers who had switched from NBC to ABC.
“It could say that I’m a lousy candidate and I didn’t do a good job,” Biden said, asked what a loss would mean for him and the country. “But I hope that it doesn’t say that we are as racially, ethnically and religiously at odds with one another as it appears, as the president wants us to be.”
Over on NBC, President Trump was busy doing a kinder, gentler impression of his usual self. Still, it included some of the same excesses. Pressed by host Savannah Guthrie on the conspiracy theory QAnon, which puts forth that a mighty cabal of Satanic cannibal-pedophiles are pulling the strings of the Democratic Party, the president couldn’t bring himself to unequivocally disavow.
“I know nothing about it,” Trump claimed. “I do know they are very much against pedophilia, they fight it very hard.”
He said he did not recall whether he was tested for COVID-19 just before his Cleveland debate with Biden last month. He claimed he had a great relationship with black communities, despite all evidence to the contrary. He continued to refrain from fully endorsing the wearing of masks during the coronavirus pandemic, a position that many of the top public-health experts working in his administration say is utterly dangerous to the American public.
When asked about his promotion on Twitter of the batshit conspiracy theory that Biden had SEAL Team Six murdered, Trump said, “That was a retweet. That was an opinion of somebody, and that was a retweet. I'll put it out there. People can decide.”
That answer baffled Guthrie. “I don’t get that. You’re the president—you’re not, like, someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever!”
The president continued to defend his administration’s pursuit of destroying the Affordable Care Act and ripping away protections for Americans with preexisting conditions, while claiming he is going to protect Americans with preexisting conditions.
For those used to the battery of “what the fuck?” reactions to events headlined by Trump, transitioning to Biden’s 90-minute town hall was borderline jarring. There were no new policies pulled out of thin air and in contradiction with opinions stated only days ago; interrogatives from host George Stephanopoulos were answered with aplomb rather than outrage; at no point did Biden semi-endorse a death cult.
The Trump campaign appeared flummoxed at how to spin what they had been hoping would be a humiliating defeat for Biden in the race for ratings.
“Feels like I am watching an episode of Mister Rodgers [sic] Neighborhood,” summed up Trump campaign adviser Mercedes Schlapp midway through the dueling town halls. To Schlapp’s credit, there was a gauzy softness to the event that might bring to mind the Neighborhood of Make-Believe rather than the usual Trumpian apocalyptic predictions for the suburbs in a post-Trump era where cardigan sweaters are set aflame with reckless abandon.
Still, to various players and operatives in Trumpworld, the president still managed to dramatically improve his public messaging compared to his widely panned (including among his close advisers) performance in the first Trump-Biden debate. Granted, that was setting the bar through the floor.
“He didn’t spend the whole time yelling, he didn’t piss himself… so this was as best as we could have hoped for,” said one Trump campaign adviser. “After the last debate, that is an improvement.”
In the end, Trump 2020 spun Thursday night in a way that was all too familiar: working the refs.
"President Trump soundly defeated NBC’s Savannah Guthrie in her role as debate opponent and Joe Biden surrogate,” the Trump campaign declared in a statement. “President Trump masterfully handled Guthrie’s attacks and interacted warmly and effectively with the voters in the room.”