Taunts and Abuse: On What Really Happened Between Donald Trump and Joe Biden
Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics,
Analyzes Last Night's "Debate"
Let me start by confessing that I didn’t watch most of last night’s “debate.” I tried. I really tried. I have watched every presidential debate that’s taken place since I’ve been old enough to vote—and maybe before that, as I watched John F. Kennedy debate Richard Nixon for a high school civics class. (Do high schools have civics classes anymore?) But last night I couldn’t do it.
Watching Donald Trump batter Joe Biden with nonstop taunts while Biden tried to debate—that is, to make points—was too painful. I abandoned my husband at the screen and left the room. Some headlines and commentators this morning called this verbal onslaught “interruptions.” They weren’t. They were verbal assaults.
I know something about interruptions. I’ve written and studied the subject throughout my academic career, going back to my doctoral dissertation comparing the conversational styles that I called “high involvement” and “high considerateness.” For a “high involvement” speaker, I showed, talking along with another speaker is often not an interruption but a show of enthusiastic listenership. Analyzing a conversation between New Yorkers and Californians, I found that New Yorkers who showed enthusiasm in this way were sometimes seen by Californians to be interrupting—intending to steal the floor. In such cases, interruptions resulted not from the intentions of the second speaker, but from the first speaker’s misinterpretation of a “cooperative overlap.” That’s not what was going on last night.
Trump was not talking along with Biden to show enthusiastic listenership. He wasn’t talking along at all. He was talking over. Actually, he wasn’t even talking. He was taunting. And he wasn’t listening. He was trying to prevent the audience from listening to his opponent. That’s why I put the word “debate” in quotes in my opening line. Trump’s taunts prevented last night’s event from being one.
Though I found in my research that sometimes what’s experienced as interruptions aren’t intended as such, clearly people do often interrupt each other, intentionally trying to stop someone else from finishing their turn, or trying to interject a comment before they finish. That has happened in previous presidential debates. As I sat down to write about last night, I was reminded of an op-ed I wrote for the New York Times following the second presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barak Obama in 2012. I wrote at the time, “The debates this year might be most remembered for the frequency (and ferocity) with which the candidates have interrupted each other.” That observation is laughable—or, more accurately, cryable—in light of last night’s debacle. Frequency? For something to be “frequent” there must be periods when it is not occurring. An interruption can only be called that if there are periods during which another speaker actually holds the floor. Last night there weren’t any. Trump didn’t stop talking long enough to allow Biden to hold the floor for a single sentence, let alone a conversational turn. Ferocity? Anything that occurred between Romney and Obama—or between any two presidential candidates in any previous debate—looks respectful and dignified compared to Trump’s barrage.
Following the Obama-Romney debate, critics faulted the moderator, Jim Lehrer, for not interrupting the candidates more. I defended Lehrer, pointing out that if his job was to get them interacting with each other as in a conversation, then the more they interrupted each other, the more successful he was. People interrupt each other in natural conversation all the time. What we saw last night wasn’t candidates interrupting each other. It was Trump talking over Biden—no, not even talking over, taunting Biden, preventing him from talking when the agreed-upon debate rules gave him the floor. No commentator faulted Chris Wallace for not interrupting Trump—nor for doing so. Because interrupting Trump to tell him to stop interrupting Biden was not working, some faulted him for not forcibly interrupting Trump by turning off his mic when Biden was supposed to have the floor.
I give credit to those who watched the entire debate; they have stronger nerves than I. But I’m willing to bet their nerves are still jangling. The country’s collective nerves have been jangling for nearly four years. Last night’s non-debate only amped up the volume. I am sympathetic to those who are questioning whether two more such spectacles should be countenanced. But here is one thing I hope: in discussing what happened last night—and similar displays if they are allowed to happen again—let’s not use the term “interruption” to describe the nonstop barrage of verbal assault by which Donald Trump prevented last night’s encounter from being a debate. Using that term insults the dignity of legitimate—and even of objectionable—conversational interruptions.