The transcripts from last night’s debate are littered with Donald Trump’s interjections: “wrong”; “lies”; “ugh.” Grabbing the mic compulsively, the Republican nominee made every attempt to steamroll over moderator and opponent alike. Moments after he and Hillary Clinton officially ended their first in-person faceoff, the final counts started rolling in. Vox found that he cut off Clinton 51 times, though no number has yet been tallied for Lester Holt. The performance inspired both Matt Taibbi and Howard Dean to liken him to that sweating, coked-up guy at a party that won’t stop sniffing or shut the hell up.
The optics of the situation are deeply uncomfortable; there’s nothing quite like a white dude who can’t stop pawing a mic, and that Holt was the first moderator of color since the ‘90s gave Trump’s commandeering manner a symbolic heft. In part these are the same set of tactics the man has been using since he captured his base: hubris and petulance disguised, poorly, as guts and a fighting spirit. Don’t forget: This is the guy who interrupted a rally for fellow Republican Ted Cruz with a literal airplane. It’s not like this is the first time he’s used noisy incoherence as the first and only line of defense.
Still, the disrespect and utter tactlessness in context was a bit shocking, and at times could look similar to centuries spent barring, through sheer volume, entire demographics from the public sphere. Trump cut off Holt’s attempt to return to a question about racial unity—“What do you say to Americans, people of color…” he asked—with some aggressive interjections leading nowhere: “I say nothing.” He argued with the moderator about, and then abandoned, the idea that stop-and-frisk was unconstitutional and racist.
Trump’s unfettered contempt for Holt, ostensibly an impartial participant, started early and didn’t relent, even when the moderator brought up a matter of his stance on the Iraq War. Finger raised, the Republican nominee shouted down from the stage: “Actually,” he told Holt, “the record shows that I’m right.” (Of course, it didn’t.)
“Wait a minute, Lester,” he butted in for what felt like the hundredth time, when questioned again about comments on Clinton’s lack of a “presidential look.” He ran his mouth about stamina and, incredibly, managed to pivot back to trade.
Since Rebecca Solnit published “Men Explain Things to Me” and inspired the term "mansplain," we’ve developed a bunch of super-cute and clunky portmanteaus to describe this kind of behavior: broproppriation, manterrupting, whitesplaining. They come in handy when Matt Damon tells a black filmmaker how diversity should work in front of a camera, or when tech CEOs hijack a diversity panel, or when Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood’s president, testifies before House Republicans and gets interrupted something like 44 times. That such instances of condescension are counted and filed at all could be considered basic progress, and it’s far easier to pull off when video can be rapidly rewound. But the whole point of commandeering a public conversation is so that no one will remember who the narrative was taken from in the first place.
Yet Trump didn’t exactly do that; if anything, his interruptions made him come off as unhinged. Cutting off a speaker has been used since the invention of the podium to silence less visible voices—at its lewdest, it looks like the hecklers shouting at activist Marilyn Webb, “Take her off the stage and fuck her!” during an SDS convention in the ‘60s, on the more insidious and modern incarnation, like white activists using BLM protests as a soapbox.
And sure it’s rude, dismissive, and patronizing to so blatantly scream across the stage. But who didn’t know Trump was an asshole, a racist, the kind of guy to defend a sexist statement? The most frustrating thing about his pageantry is that it overshadows less overt rhetoric. Trump has a number attached to his sexism in the first debate—51—and it’s utter insanity for him to argue with a black man about whether stop-and-frisk is constitutional. But it took Clinton two graceful seconds, asked about being an ally to the black community, to start talking about the rates of violent crime.