How to Start a ‘Dumpster Fire’ (and Prevent the Next One)

17 mins read

History seems destined to blame Donald Trump for the “dumpster fire inside a train wreck” presidential debate this week. The debate transcript, however, clearly shows that Joe Biden lit the match, and moderator Chris Wallace threw a log on the fire, before America’s counter-puncher-in-chief came back with pyrotechnics of his own. It also shows that the remedy to prevent similar debates in the future may be very different from the rule changes some critics now propose. 

Let’s parse the transcript in some detail, using the time stamps and words on 

Tone of Disrespect and Interruptions 

Chris Wallace began his introduction 1 minute and 20 seconds into the program and spoke for 1 minute and 29 seconds. Then, at 2:49, Biden spoke first among the candidates, saying to the president, “How you doing, man?” 

Addressing a president of the United States as “man” instead of “Mr. President” (or the female gender equivalent) is equivalent to addressing the pope as “dude,” or the queen of England as “Queenie.” The normal etiquette is observed out of respect for the office of the presidency itself, independent of who holds that office. Mitt Romney carefully followed this convention when debating Barack Obama. Imagine if Romney had addressed Obama as “hey, man” or “Barry.” So the in-your-face disrespect began with Biden’s very first words. Trump, for his part, did not react here and merely replied, “How are you doing?”  

Wallace’s first question, directed to the president, was about the Supreme Court. Trump spoke uninterrupted for 81 seconds of his allotted 120 seconds, from 4:01 to 5:22. Biden was given his two minutes at 5:22 and started speaking at 5:29. Biden did address Trump politely as “Mr. President” and Trumped politely replied, “Thank you, Joe.” Biden spoke uninterrupted until 7:34, which was more than his full two minutes.   

Trump then began to reply at 7:34 but was interrupted after just 27 seconds by Biden, who at 8:01 jumped in to say, “He’s elected to the next election.” The moderator did not caution Biden against the interruption. 

Trump continued for 22 more seconds before he was interrupted by Biden for a second time, at 8:24, saying, “That’s simply not true.” Again, Wallace did not caution Biden.  

Trump tried to speak again at minute 8:25. Now, he was interrupted after just four seconds by Chris Wallace himself. Wallace broke off the president in mid-phrase at 8:29, stating “Gentlemen, we’re now into open discussion.”  

“Open discussion,” said Biden. 

“Open discussion, yes, I agree. Go ahead, Vice President,” said Wallace at 8:31, and Biden began to speak. 

So, not only was Biden not disciplined for the interruptions or etiquette breach, he was awarded with control of the microphone. It would be akin to a football game where one team trash-talked at the coin flip, jumped offsides twice without penalty, and then is handed the ball by the referee to go on offense. The tone of the night had been set by Biden and Wallace for an “anything goes, fight for yourself” evening.  

Biden spoke uninterrupted for 25 seconds about the right to maintain private health insurance, from 8:33 to 8:58. Trump jumped in at 8:58 to say, “That’s not what you’ve said and it’s not what your party is saying,” to which Biden replied, “That is simply a lie.”  

Was Trump allowed to interject now that it was “open discussion”? Was Biden going too far in using the word “lie”? One can argue either way. The candidates went back and forth in one- or two-second intervals until Biden then spoke again for 27 seconds, then Trump for two sentences, then Biden for one sentence, then Trump for three sentences.  

The exchange continued in this vein before Biden interjected to Wallace, “You’re not going to be able to shut him up” at 10:05, and then, “Donald, would you just be quiet for a minute” at 10:35.   

So, at 10 minutes or so into the most important political debate of 2020 — as the voters were drawing their first key impressions — Trump had almost no time beyond his original 81 seconds to speak without interruption. The president had been directly insulted by Biden four times (“man,” “lie,” “shut up,” “Donald…”). Wallace had interrupted Trump once, taken the microphone from him once, and never cautioned Biden directly on his interruptions or tone. Wallace, however, had begun to cite Trump for his interruptions or failure to stop speaking. The “dumpster fire” had begun. 

‘When Did You Stop Beating Your Wife?’ Questions 

At 10:51, Wallace sought to address another topic: the Supreme Court’s upcoming review of the Affordable Care Act. Wallace embedded several premises in his question that the moderator presented to the viewing audience as accepted fact: “You have never in these four years come up with a plan, a comprehensive plan, to replace Obamacare,” Wallace said at 11:11. “You signed a largely symbolic executive order to protect people with pre-existing conditions five days before this debate.” Then Wallace got to the actual question: “So my question, sir, is what is the Trump health care plan?” 

He could have simply asked the president, “What is the Trump administration health care plan?” without the preamble. It certainly would then have been proper for Biden to argue that Trump never had a comprehensive plan and that the executive order was largely symbolic. Trump might have responded with a mention of his 124-page “Reforming America’s Healthcare” document from 2017, and related points. However, then the debate would have been between the candidates, and not between a candidate and the moderator. 

When a moderator like Wallace puts the attack points into his question, it is particularly invidious because the viewing audience is trained to believe that the moderator is not taking either side.  The audience is trained to accept that whatever a moderator says is likely to be true.

Trump pushed back on the “no comprehensive plan” and “symbolic” statements buried within Wallace’s question, but was allotted 24 seconds to speak (from 12:16 to 12:40) before Wallace interrupted, saying, “What about pre-existing conditions?” Biden interrupted at 12:41 to opine, “He has not done health care.” Then Trump had just 21 seconds more  until Wallace interjected, “Okay, like I say, this is open discussion,” at 13:03. 

Wallace then asked Biden a question, using a different, more proper, template. Instead of stating what is “true” before asking the question, Wallace referred to “the argument he [Trump] makes and other Republicans make” regarding the public option’s impact on private insurance. Now, Biden is not required to debate the moderator’s own expressed truths, he can merely swat away partisan arguments from the other side.  

The same dynamic occurred repeatedly throughout the debate. For example, Wallace could more properly have asked Trump, “What is critical race theory and why do you oppose its use in government training programs?” Instead he asked, “Why did you end racial sensitivity training?” The two questions have very different implications to a typical listener, and I suspect that few Americans know that Wallace’s question and Trump’s response were about CRT at all.  


By the time the first critical 15 minutes had ended, Biden was punching, Trump was mad, and Wallace had sacrificed any semblance of control. Once the brawling tone had been established and testosterone was flowing for Biden, Trump and Wallace, it was too late to stop it. Biden continued to taunt the president with lines such as calling him “old buddy,” “a liar” “a racist,” “a clown” and saying, “Will you shut up, man?” None of Biden’s taunts drew a red flag from Wallace, who instead repeatedly verbally sanctioned Trump. Trump’s resentment over years of false Russian probes, impeachment, et al., presumably made his own words flow hotter.   

Looking forward, it is still unknown what impact the debate will have on this election. One school of thought expects that Biden will benefit. Because Trump was fighting both Biden and Wallace, he appeared to be in the wrong by a vote of 2-1, whatever the actual merits. If Trump and Biden both played to the stereotype of a brawler, it is arguably a negative for Trump but a badge of honor for Biden (who was considered too weak to brawl).

The anything-goes nature of the battle also led Trump to poorly explain some of his own positions. His answer on white supremacy — just days after he announced plans to name the KKK a terrorist group, and after he had explicitly condemned white supremacy numerous times — was inexplicably bad, as was his failure to say he may appeal election fraud issues to the courts instead of saying he may not accept election results at all.  

On the other hand, Trump’s supporters think the president was stronger than Biden and gained support for showing strength. He caught Biden evading the answer to questions on court packing, law and order, the Burisma scandal and other key topics. Nor can Biden ever claim to be “nice guy Joe” again. The jury on the debate result is still out. But if Biden did win, he may be like the kid who starts the fight at school, and then smiles as his opponent is hauled away by the principal.   

Change the Rules of the Game?

 So the first debate of 2020 is now behind us, but generations of future presidential debates loom before us. What new rules for presidential debates should there be, if any? Here are some that make sense: 

  • Moderators should not include any “facts” in the body of their question unless those “facts” are accepted as known truths by both parties to the debate. Otherwise, the premises should be presented as partisan opinions for response, just as Wallace correctly did with Biden and the private-option question. 
  • Moderators should keep their questions short and to the point. “What is your health care plan?” is a proper inquiry. A long editorial on the moderator’s opinions followed by the brief question is not. 
  • Rudeness and breaches of the rules should be called out immediately, when they first appear, rather than waiting for the second party to respond in kind. Moderators should not call infractions against one side, while allowing the other to pass without comment. 
  • Having a single moderator causes too much harm if that moderator performs poorly or is biased. Three moderators, each asking a question in turn, might have lowered temperatures and saved the evening. 
  • Under no circumstances should a “mute” or censor button be in the hands of a moderator or any third party. If a mute mechanism is to be used (and I don’t think it should be), it should just be used for pre-set blocks of airtime for each candidate. The moderator should be muted as well during the candidates’ time. 

There are other ways for the Commission on Presidential Debates to ensure the voters are getting a better product. The first debate should not just be about domestic issues, because this implicitly states that the moderator and the debate establishment find foreign policy issues to be of lesser importance.

The 15-minute block of time per topic format is a failure, because it merely invites in a chance for peripheral issues, versus clear questions on clearly defined topics (e.g. “Do you support the move of the U.S Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and why? You each have 90 seconds to respond.”) In addition, the concept of “open discussion” should be better defined. If it means dedicated blocks of time to each speaker, then it is not open. If it means free discourse without time blocks, then interjections and back-and-forth dialogue are not “interruptions.” 

The first presidential debate of 2020 may have been the perfect trap to destroy Donald Trump: a fight with no rules, where Trump is then criticized for being a fighter with no rules. His foes think he was caught in the trap; his friends think he turned the trap to his own advantage. Still, there should be no such traps or “dumpster fires” again. Better debate rules and better moderator enforcement of those rules can help improve results.

K.S. Bruce writes the “In This Corner” opinion column for RealClearLife.

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