'Shrugs and hand-flailing': How the mute button made for a better Trump-Biden debate

After a poor performance at the first debate, some say the mute button might have actually played in Trump’s favour

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Last night, for the first time ever in a U.S. presidential debate, the sitting president and his opponent needed to be subdued via a mute button.

The second debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice-President Joe Biden was held at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, and moderated by Kristen Welker of NBC News.

During the previous debate between the two hopefuls back in September, Trump, more than Biden, drew ire for his constant interruptions of his opponent’s answers, which led to the entire debate to spiralling out of the moderator’s control. It went so poorly that the commission overseeing debates announced that candidates’ microphones would be muted while the other speaks — an American first.

When the mute option was initially announced, the Trump team wasn’t too thrilled. According to the BBC, his campaign manager Bill Stepien called the decision part of the debate commission’s “pro-Biden antics.”


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But the button — or at least the threat of being muted, because many people reported it wasn’t actually on most of the time — seemed to achieve its intended purpose. There were less interruptions, and Trump and Biden seemed to avoid talking over themselves, and Welker.

“Instead of a constant stream of interruptions there was a mime’s display of emotion: head-nodding, smirking, eye-rolling and wide-eyed grimaces,” The Washington Post wrote. “There were shrugs and hand-flailing and finger jabbing.”

Some say the button might have actually played in Trump’s favour.

After his performance at the first debate, Trump’s poll numbers dipped, with many believing his attitude, particularly around jabs at Biden’s family, lost him the night.

Rather than letting President Trump hang himself again, the Commission on Presidential Debates gave him the opportunity to elevate his performance

This time around, many publications reported that Trump’s more measured performance might have actually helped his numbers.

“Rather than letting President Trump hang himself again, the Commission on Presidential Debates gave him the opportunity to elevate his performance by refusing him the chance to engage in the behaviour that damaged him the most,” deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management John Hudak wrote in the Brookings Institution publication.

Though the snottiness was muted, the talking points remained generally the same, with Biden advocating for measures to avoid the spread of COVID-19, and Trump continuing, in slightly softer terms, his assault on Biden’s son Hunter.

Not everyone was impressed with the button’s success, the Washington Post reported, with TV host Stephen Colbert, a frequent Trump basher, taking issue with the fact that the rule change applied to both candidates. Trump had, he pointed out, interrupted Biden 128 times at the first debate, many more than his opponent, according to a count made by Slate. In a monologue titled “Pursuit to Mute the Brute,” Colbert said:

“Why are we pretending this is for both of them? The rule only applies to one guy.”

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