Many liberals were understandably annoyed that NBC decided to give Donald Trump an hour for a town hall on Thursday night, which overlapped with the 90-minute town hall ABC hosted for Joe Biden. The two presidential contenders had in fact originally been scheduled to debate, but Trump bowed out because he did not accept the ruling of the debate commission after his recent bout with Covid-19 that it should be a virtual event. This led ABC to offer a town hall to Biden. Trump, wishing to one-up his rival, requested and received the NBC town hall.
The whole sorry spectacle seemed to be an example of Trump once again bullying his way to the center of attention. As Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan complained, “NBC News is doing what so much of mainstream media has done time and again: allowed Trump to steal the spotlight and command attention on his terms.” Cheryl Gould, a former NBC News executive, spoke for many when she wrote, “I am dismayed—more like disgusted—by NBC’s decision to air Trump’s ‘I won’t play by the rules so let me make my own rules’ town hall opposite Biden’s.”
Lurking behind these criticisms is legitimate anger about how the media helped Trump in 2016 by uncritically airing his rallies. Trump was good for ratings, so CNN and Fox gave him an inordinate amount of airtime, which both spread Trump’s message and, equally importantly, drowned out Hillary Clinton’s ability to make her case.
But 2020 has a very different dynamic than the last presidential election. Trump in 2016 was a challenger selling himself, often willing to say wildly contradictory things in order to win voters. He was selling a dream—and the free media he received helped him close the sale.
This year, Trump isn’t selling a dream so much as he is defending a nightmare. He’s been president for nearly four years, and the country is in a shambles. His recent hospitalization with Covid-19, which has also infected many White House staffers and senior Republicans, only underscores his record of failure.
As a beleaguered president, Trump isn’t helped by more TV time. In the first presidential debate, his belligerent behavior, with constant hectoring of both Biden and the moderator Chris Wallace, made Trump look bad. That debate seems to have contributed to Biden’s surge in the polls, where he now has a lead of more than 10 percent in the 538 aggregation of the polls.
Trump was mildly less rude in the NBC town hall, but he continued to be testy and frazzled. The town hall was a disaster for Trump. This was in large part due to the questions from host Savannah Guthrie, who was firm, informed, and quick to rebut Trump’s lies. In striking contrast to Chris Wallace, Guthrie was unwilling to let Trump walk all over her. As Molly Olmstead of Slate accurately observed, Guthrie was “a cheerful but firm interrogator, returning again and again to the facts and details of Trump’s answers.” In addition to Guthrie, the ordinary citizens who asked questions were also sharp and focused.
As Alex Shephard of The New Republic notes, “It is now abundantly clear that NBC News did Biden a favor by booking the president and forcing a comparison. A rattled Trump spent his town hall sweating like Patrick Ewing and screaming at voters who dared question him about his record. He indicated he might have tested positive for Covid-19 before his debate with the former vice president and that X-rays may have shown coronavirus-related lung damage.”
Trump denigrated mask wearing (spreading the untrue claim that a study shows that “85 percent of the people that wear masks catch it.”) He also had trouble fielding questions about his foreign debt (suggesting that $400 million is not a large debt and that he wasn’t overleveraged), his alleged tax avoidance, and his nonexistent health care plan.
The most memorable moment of the first debate was Trump’s unwillingness to denounce white supremacy. Guthrie returned to that question and got him to make a clear, if obviously forced and insincere, condemnation. But she followed that up with a question about the conspiracy cult QAnon, which she accurately described as “this theory that Democrats are part of a Satanic pedophile ring and that you are the savior of that.”
In a long exchange, Trump refused to denounce QAnon and in fact affirmed its core beliefs. The entire back-and-forth is revealing:
Trump: I know nothing about QAnon.
Guthrie: I just told you.
Trump: Well you told me, but what you tell me doesn’t necessarily make it fact. I hate to say that. I know nothing about it. I do know they are very much against pedophilia, they fight it very hard. But I know nothing about it.
Guthrie: They believe it is a satanic cult run by the deep state.
Trump: I’ll tell you what I do know about. I know about antifa and I know about the radical left and how violent and vicious they are, and I know how they are burning down cities run by Democrats, not run by Republicans.
Guthrie: Republican Sen. Ben Sasse said, quote, “QAnon is nuts and real leaders call conspiracy theories conspiracy theories.”
Trump: He may be right.
Guthrie: Why not just say it’s crazy and not true?
Trump: I just don’t know about QAnon.
Guthrie: You do know.
Trump: I don’t know. I don’t know. No, I don’t know.… Let me just tell you what I do hear about it is they are very strongly against pedophilia, and I agree with that, I do agree with that.
Guthrie: OK, but there’s not a satanic pedophile cult being run by—
Trump: I have no idea. I know nothing about that.
Guthrie: You don’t know that? OK.
Trump: No I don’t know that. And neither do you know that.
Guthrie: OK, just this week you retweeted—
Trump: Why aren’t you asking me about antifa? Why aren’t you asking me about the radical left? Why aren’t you asking Joe Biden questions about—why doesn’t he condemn antifa? Why does he say it doesn’t exist?
Guthrie: Because you’re here before me.
Trump: So cute.
Those last derogatory words, “so cute,” were spat out with anger. Throughout the exchange, Trump engaged in his usual mixture of whataboutery and feigned ignorance. By affirming the falsehood that QAnon works to stop pedophilia rather than to smear innocent people, Trump clearly aligned himself with a deranged fringe group. Just as the first debate will be remembered for Trump’s embrace of white supremacy, this town hall was defined by his affirmation of QAnon.
A Trump campaign adviser summed up the town hall by telling The Daily Beast that Trump “didn’t spend the whole time yelling, he didn’t piss himself… so this was as best as we could have hoped for.” But the best they could hope for won’t persuade many voters.