You’d be forgiven for thinking last night’s debate completely lacked order and was the chaotic product of a President hell-bent on destroying any lingering ether of coherence or comity.
But, given a close look, a clear pattern does emerge in President Trump’s behavior: whenever the topic of COVID-19 came up, the President went completely off the rails, hurling disconnected and vicious attacks at his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, and, at times, moderator Chris Wallace.
Take the first time that Biden brought up COVID-19, around 10 minutes into the debate. It came during an opening volley of heckling from Trump, as he tried to paint Biden as some kind of Bolshevik in disguise.
“The 200,000 people that have died on his watch, how many of those have survived?” Biden asked. “Well, there’s seven million people that contracted COVID. What does it mean for them going forward if you strike down the Affordable Care Act?”
Trump at first replied completely incoherently, saying, “You’ve had 308,000 military people dying because you couldn’t provide them proper health care in the military.”
Biden replied that he was “happy to talk about this.”
But then, Trump really lost it. For the next few minutes of the debate, Trump did little more than fling brief snippets of attacks at Biden. At first he said that “it would have been two million people” had Biden been in office. Biden brought up Roe v. Wade (this whole exchange occurred following a question about the Supreme Court), but Trump was still enraged, telling Biden “you don’t know what’s on the ballot.”
Things degraded from there. Wallace asked about the pending Affordable Care Act case before the Supreme Court, and Trump didn’t let him finish, instead interjecting with a series of brief jabs at Biden and the ACA while saying “we will protect people.”
After more crosstalk, Biden eventually said that Trump was “a liar,” two which Trump replied, “Joe, you’re the liar. You graduated last in your class, not first in your class.”
Trump picked up that same line of attack later on in the debate — again after Biden brought up COVID-19. The President’s veil of populism slipped and revealed Trump as an Ivy Leaguer sneering at someone for going to state school.
Biden had said that Trump “knew how dangerous [COVID-19] was going to be back in February, and he didn’t even tell you.”
Biden Asks Voters: 'Do You Believe For A Moment What He's Telling You?' pic.twitter.com/BJXphGilWa
— Matt Shuham (@mattshuham) September 30, 2020
“He panicked or he just looked at the stock market. One of the two. Because guess what?” Biden asked. “A lot of people died and a lot more are going to die unless he gets a lot smarter, a lot quicker —”
Then, Trump, turning towards Biden, began to speak.
“Did you use the word smart?” Trump interjected.
“So, you said you went to Delaware State, but you forgot the name of your college. You didn’t go to Delaware State,” he said, tapping into a debunked right-wing attack. “You graduated either the lowest or almost the lowest in your class. Don’t ever use the word smart with me.”
Trump sneers at Biden: "There's nothing smart about you, Joe" pic.twitter.com/BfRJiYZRk9
— TPM Livewire (@TPMLiveWire) September 30, 2020
The same rampage occured elsewhere in the debate when the topic of COVID-19 came up.
Take the time during the debate that was actually apportioned for discussing the virus.
Biden got the first shot at responding, during which Trump employed his typical strategy of saying “wrong” in the middle of every sentence.
But then Trump couldn’t let Biden finish, reverting to his earlier talking points of “it’s China’s fault” and “if we would’ve listened to you, the country would have been left wide open, millions of people would have died, not 200,000.”
The overarching point — that Trump does not have an answer to questions about his handling of the pandemic — was illustrated again when Trump brought up the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, telling Biden that he was “a disaster.”
“14,000 people died, not 200,000,” Biden replied.
“A far less lethal disease, by the way,” Trump scoffed.