Few would have expected the first debate between US President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden to proceed in any sort of cordial fashion, politely adhering to the fundamentally genteel aspirations of the format. Nonetheless, the train wreck on that Ohio stage on Tuesday night was a ridiculous display of how corroded America’s political infrastructure has become, and how far still it might break down.

A president blind to his own many failings faced off with an ex–vice president past his peak and struggling to carry the future, in a spat nominally moderated by a journalist from the news network that has Trump in its pocket.

America’s interminable and extravagant election campaigns make such an event a big show with high expectations, as if there is something new to glean out of two septuagenarians bickering for their claim to the Resolute Desk. Swing voters are a dying breed in America, and the fantasy that a suit-and-tie cage match such as this one will change anybody’s mind is just that.

Nearly four years into Trump’s presidency, the needle has barely moved, despite his impeachment in Congress, his unfulfilled campaign promises and his unceasing fabrications large and small. 200,000 Americans are dead from Covid-19, in a pandemic the president wilfully played down, but for Trump it’s apparently water off a duck’s back.

A reasonable person in such circumstances would understandably resign in shame and humility, but Trump proves over and over he is immune to such frailties. His charms, whatever they are, continue to work their magic on a substantial segment of Americans. Somehow, inexplicably, this is still a tight race, if only because of the archaic Electoral College.  

The call not to fact-check the participants seemed less an attempt to level the field than an open admission that it would be a hopeless cause and a waste of time.

But Trump is also on the ropes, trailing consistently in the polls and beset by so many scandals that each new one fails to shock – except perhaps for the recent revelation of his tax records, which indicated he had paid next to nothing in federal income taxes the year he ran for the presidency and in his first year in office, owes hundreds of millions to unidentified foreign creditors, and spent more on his hair than the average American makes in annual salary. It’s hardly a good look, and also raises serious security concerns – a fraction of those debts would normally torpedo an application for government security clearance.  

The challenge of the debate for Trump, then, was to say something, anything, with a clear ring of sincerity, while keeping the pugnacity cranked up to 11, lest he disappoint his devoted followers. He also had to get Biden to stumble, to prove his opponent is the addled stooge of a shadowy cabal of America-hating socialists bent on burning its cities to the ground and indoctrinating its children with lessons in revisionist history. Trump has harped on the image of “Sleepy Joe”, to the point of demanding there be a drug test prior to the debate, which prompted a surprisingly unpuritanical retort from the Biden campaign.

For Biden, the challenge on the night was simpler, although maybe not easier – just get through it. Debating a figure like Trump, who has no identifiable dedication to objective facts or logical consistency, and a fat expense account for cheap insults, is a fool’s errand. There is no reward, only risk.

Chris Wallace, the moderator, quickly lost control of the proceedings, hoisted by his own petard of an open format that might have worked with two participants capable of playing by the rules, but turned out to be an invitation to disaster. His call not to fact-check the participants seemed less an attempt to level the field than an open admission that it would be a hopeless cause and a waste of time.  

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden (L), moderator Chris Wallace and President Donald Trump during the US presidential debate, Cleveland, Ohio, 29 September 2020 (Olivier Douliery via Getty Images)

Whatever topic Wallace threw out – the Supreme Court, Covid-19, economic recovery, racial justice, climate change – veered quickly into mayhem.

Biden’s performance in the debate, parrying barbs more than scoring points, will likely be remembered by a single quote: “Will you shut up, man?”

But what wasn’t said was the more telling.

In Biden’s case, he chose not to pursue the line that Senate Republicans had egregiously gone back on their word by vowing to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee in an election year, and instead borrowed their own specious argument for denying a hearing to Barack Obama’s nominee in 2016. The brazen hypocrisy of the Senate leadership has further poisoned the well in an already toxic election, and Biden passed on the opportunity to call it out.

Trump’s omissions were damning in a whole other way, and do not bode well for a peaceful transition of power, should he lose the election.

When Trump went after Biden’s son in a very personal attack, Trump’s own children were sitting in the audience, perfect emblems for the nepotism and conflicts of interest that his administration has made routine. Biden didn’t go there.

And Trump’s absurd claim that addressing climate change was little more than a matter of forest management was a clear opening to remind Americans of the numerous environmental regulations Trump has undone and his gutting of oversight agencies. Biden whiffed.

Trump’s omissions were damning in a whole other way, and do not bode well for a peaceful transition of power, should he lose the election.

Along with a now familiar string of alarming prevarications about recognising the results of the election, and hollow claims of voter fraud, Trump declined, when asked if he would “condemn white supremacists and militia groups”, to utter those words. Instead, he delivered a lifeline to the fringe:

Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem.

Some Republicans have taken the radical step to attempt to distance themselves from Trump’s remarks. But it’s too little, too late. For decades, the party has honed its pitch in dog-whistling white resentment of an increasingly diverse and multicultural society. Trump simply shouts it into a megaphone.

There are two more of these debates scheduled. There might not be that many undecided voters left. Meanwhile, the world looks on, aghast. As an American watching all this from overseas, I fear for the republic.