They’re Both Totally Unfit

America is left without any good option.

Newspaper-photo-style black-and-white images of Donald Trump and Joe Biden at Thursday's presidential debate
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Justin Sullivan / Getty.

Newspaper-photo-style black-and-white images of Donald Trump and Joe Biden at Thursday's presidential debate

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The first presidential debate of this election cycle is over, and what a depressing spectacle it was. I can’t remember feeling guilty watching a campaign event before, but seeing the exchanges between Joe Biden and Donald Trump felt like participating in elder abuse. There’s nothing winsome about pestering old men with incessant questions as if to deny them the dignity of their dotage.

Biden was particularly ill-served by the proceedings. From the moment he shuffled onstage and muttered his first answer in a hushed and wheezing monotone, it was clear that he is too old for the job he has right now, and certainly too old for another four-year term. The president is in the wintertime of his life. He ought to rest.

Trump, meanwhile, was much the same as he always has been, if not somewhat muted—more mottled now, less coppery, hair thinned out to the soft white blond of a towheaded child. He ignored every question posed to him, repeating bizarre lies (for instance, it does not appear that “hundreds of thousands” of people are being murdered by migrants in New York or anywhere else) until his time ran out. Biden seemed in worse condition, but Trump was by no means sharp.

When pressed gently about his age, Biden said that for a long time, he was the youngest guy in politics, and now he’s one of the oldest; the answer then veered into a discussion of “computer chips.” Like two geezers in a nursing home, the men squabbled over golf handicaps as though a low-enough score could convince onlookers of their good health. If the debate itself was an assessment of the candidates’ acuity, nobody prevailed.

Biden and Trump did engage substantively on some issues. There was a barely followable exchange over abortion during which Trump refused to take up a typical GOP pro-life stance and instead counseled voters, “You gotta follow your heart.” They battled over who has catered best to veterans, bickering about Trump’s deranged comments on the war dead. They competed to express unremitting support for Israel in its war against Hamas, despite the destruction of Gaza. There was very little policy to argue about, but presidential debates aren’t about policy; they’re about creating impressions. And the impression was bad.

Theoretically, we came to this juncture—this choice between incapacity and malice—through the operation of democracy, meaning that it’s a quandary we ourselves chose. But Biden knows this much: The will of the people can be wrong. When asked whether Trump’s supporters are voting against democracy, he said the ones who vote for the former president are indeed intent upon reversing democratic methods and norms. In that case, there are people in America whose will is to destroy it. Candidates often accuse their opponents’ supporters of voting against their own best interests, but these voters seem set on voting against everyone’s best interests.

The candidates said some factual things and some false things, but only one message came across as true: Our nation is shambling along the road to hell, and there doesn’t appear to be an off-ramp. “We are living in a rat’s nest,” Trump said, right for the wrong reasons. “We’re like a bunch of stupid people,” he went on; “we’re a failing nation.” Absolutely, but not because of migrants or the Chinese or the Russians: This mess is made in America, and all of us are going to suffer for it.

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