America is often described as a “split screen nation”, bitterly divided between two political tribes dwelling in echo chambers. But Thursday night at 8pm was a bit too on the nose.
The NBC network hosted a town hall event with Donald Trump. ABC hosted a simultaneous town hall event with his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden. It was a fitting battle for a ratings-obsessed US president who made himself a reality TV star on The Apprentice.
For political geeks, it required a nimble finger on the remote control, like toggling between two unmissable sports games. Anyone who took that trouble discovered, not entirely unexpectedly, that the candidates for the American presidency are not merely from different parties but apparently also from different planets.
The president perched awkwardly on a stool, sweating under studio lights, and rambled feverishly like “someone’s crazy uncle”, as host Savannah Guthrie put it. Biden, by contrast, looked relaxed in a white armchair like a grandfather with pipe, slippers and twinkle in his eye.
Guthrie delivered a better performance than the moderators of the first presidential debate or last week’s vice-presidential debate. She pushed Trump hard on whether he had taken a Covid-19 test on the day of the first debate. He stumbled through a variety of answers: possibly, probably and don’t know. Guthrie also challenged Trump over his longtime refusal to wear a mask and America’s high death rate. The president became defensive.
What was happening in Bidenworld over on ABC? He was reminding host George Stephanopoulos that Trump had advocated “crazy stuff” like injecting bleach in your body.
Switching back to NBC, Trump was saying of the virus: “It should’ve never happened because of China. It happened because of China. And you have to get that and understand that. But it shouldn’t have happened.”
By 8.13pm, the president was being asked about white supremacy.