A full day removed from the first presidential debate – a disastrous spectacle pundits called a “shitshow” and, to quote CNN’s Jake Tapper, “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck” – late-night shows processed one of the evening’s most disturbing highlights: Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacy.
Asked specifically to do so by the moderator, Chris Wallace, the president instead rambled: “I’m willing to do anything, I want to see peace” and “Give me a name, who do you want me to name?” When Wallace answered “white supremacists” as Biden supplied the Proud Boys, a men-only extremist group which supports violence, Trump responded: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”
You know Trump really did the racism when even his lackeys think he s**t the bed on that white supremacy question: pic.twitter.com/eEBt73MenF— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) October 1, 2020
“There you have it, folks. Trump had an opportunity to be like, ‘White supremacists, I don’t fuck with you,’” said Trevor Noah, and “instead he’s like ‘Stand by, guys. I never know when I’m gonna need you.’”
Trump’s avoidance was so egregious that even his supporters at Fox News acknowledged it, but “they still give him the benefit of the doubt”, said Noah. For example: “I don’t know if he didn’t hear it, but he’s gotta clarify that right away,” said the Fox News host Brian Kilmeade. “Why the president didn’t just knock that out of the park, I’m not sure.”
“I wish I had friends who were that loyal,” Noah joked in response. “If I shat my pants in public, none of my friends would be like, ‘Trevor didn’t shit himself, his butt misspoke.’”
It’s not like Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacy is surprising, Noah added – this is the same man who said there were “very fine people on both sides” after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. In nearly four years as president, Noah said, “the only thing [Trump] avoids more than condemning white supremacists is paying taxes”.
Tuesday’s debate was “more like a collective brain hemorrhage” than a discussion, said Seth Meyers on Late Night. Watching it was like “hotboxing a Porta Potty with crystal meth in Phoenix in July. It was like being hit on the head with a lead pipe in a room filled with nitrous oxide. It was like watching a two-person performance of 12 Angry Men where one actor played one part and one was mad enough for the other 11.”
In other words, it was “one of the most embarrassing debacles in American history”, said Meyers. And yet “the Fox News post-debate spin was even more pathetic than all the whining about the moderator”, he added, playing a clip of Fox commentator Dan Bongino calling Trump the “apex predator” and “the lion king”.
“He’s like a cross between He-Man, Xena Warrior Princess and a bowl of farina with googly eyes!” Meyers mocked.
“I’m sorry, you watched that debate and saw an apex predator and gladiator warrior fighter? Because he didn’t look like a predator to me,” Meyers added. “Most of the time he stood there with his head cocked like an old dog who just heard a twig snap. He held on to that podium like my grandma holds on to her walker when they’re reading the Powerball numbers.”
The debate “gave new meaning to the term ‘white noise’”, said Stephen Colbert on the Late Show, especially the “horrifying moment” when Trump refused to denounce white supremacists.
“Well, it seems like somebody in the White House started looking at the numbers and realized that siding with a violent hate group doesn’t poll well with suburban women,” said Colbert, pointing to Trump’s comments on Wednesday that he “didn’t know who the Proud Boys are” and “whoever they are they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work”.
“Notice he didn’t actually denounce the Proud Boys,” Colbert responded. “So his walkback still had a hint of goose step.”
One reporter gave Trump another chance to clearly and definitively denounce white supremacy, and Trump “clearly and definitively took a pass”, said Colbert. Instead, Trump rambled about unsubstantiated violence in New York, and deflected from calling out white supremacy by name: “I’ve always denounced any form, any form of any of that,” he said.
Basically, Colbert explained, “he tried a variation on the ‘very fine people on both sides’ thing”.
And on Full Frontal, Samantha Bee returned to Wallace’s introduction of a question about race, during which the moderator assured Trump he could say anything he wanted in his allotted two minutes. “Do not tell Trump that he can say anything he wants about race!” Bee exclaimed. “Not only will it be wrong and deeply offensive, but Mark Burnett will have to spend hours erasing the tapes.”
As for Trump’s dog-whistling of the Proud Boys, “‘stand back and stand by’ is a horrifying thing to say to a group of white supremacists,” Bee said, “even more horrifying than when Trump yells it out to the Secret Service as he’s waging war on the Air Force One bathroom.
“It’s not fucking hard to condemn white supremacy,” she added. “All you have to do is say ‘I condemn white supremacy.’ That’s it! You can even tack something on the end like ‘check out my mixtape,’ or ‘go Sox!’ It doesn’t matter! Just condemn it.”