Perhaps the town hall should have stayed in town. With its move to TV, it has become a patronizing format. The millions of muted viewers are supposed to believe themselves part of the “town,” despite having had no role in choosing the handful of “citizens” whose embodiment of the average American’s idea of an average American has earned them the privilege of asking a question. The resulting spectacle is part ritual, a performance of accountability and deliberation. It is also a parody, in which the consent of the governed boils down to the power switch on the remote.
Born in 1992 and patterned after the then-thriving afternoon talk-show format, the tradition of presidential town halls puttered along until October of this year, when, for reasons of candidate health and national sanity, the debate in that format was scrapped. Donald Trump and Joe Biden instead addressed two separate town halls — Trump at the Pérez Art Museum Miami and Biden at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The weirdest thing about the double-town-hall format was its simultaneity, which undermined the conceit that the intended audience was undecided voters, looking to make an informed decision. Instead, Americans all had to vote beforehand, in a sense, by choosing between screens.
In Philadelphia, Biden sat in a soft white chair across from George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. The circular stage had been done up to look like a stately living room at the bottom of an abbreviated theater-in-the-round. The voters were scattered high and wide across social distances. To meet their eyes, Biden sometimes had to pivot and peer up into the lights, with the minor but palpable discomfort that has been threaded through the entirety of his pandemic-inflected campaign. In contrast with Trump — who has continued to hold White House gatherings and tightly packed rallies as if everything were normal — Biden has given 2020’s dystopian precautions a starring role in his campaign, with chalk circles and long tables cutting him off from his supporters.
At the town hall, the strangeness of the set backdropped a performance so understated that it verged on boring. Around the dial on NBC, Trump perched against a tall stool on a stage that put him on equal footing with the voters. He treated their questions as prompts; it was left up to the moderator to try and pin him down on matters like white supremacy and the peaceful transfer of power, on which Trump previously tried to stake out some provocative middle ground. Biden seemed to be betting that Americans would choose reassurance over drama. At its core, his pitch was conservative. Some of his nimbler moments came when he ducked questions, one on the Supreme Court, another on his own proposed coronavirus response.
Stephanopoulos introduced Biden’s fourth questioner as a progressive Democrat. His name was Cedric Humphrey; he was from Harrisburg and was now in his senior year at the University of Pittsburgh. Humphrey proceeded to throw the night’s only hardball question — alluding to the time when Biden, his temper flaring, had said, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”
Humphrey linked that gaffe to a larger concern. “What do you have to say to young Black voters who see voting for you as further participation in a system that continually fails to protect them?” he asked.
Biden embarked on a rambling reply. He quoted John Lewis. He cited a jumbled array of policy initiatives — some in the past, some for the future; some intended to help Black institutions and citizens specifically, some targeted at broader populations including small-business owners and first-time home buyers. Humphrey didn’t look convinced. His question had made it clear that he wasn’t looking for piecemeal reform.
Five minutes in, Stephanopoulos tried to cut Biden off. “Did you hear what you needed to hear?” he asked Humphrey.
“Uh,” Humphrey replied. “I think so.”
Biden seemed aware that he hadn’t closed the deal. “There’s a lot more,” he said. “If you can hang around afterward, I’ll tell you more.”
Biden knew as well as anyone that just as there was no “town,” there was unlikely to be any “afterward,” at least not with Humphrey. Biden’s occasional willingness to press his phone number into the hands of a few of the everyday people he meets is evidence that he understands the impersonal nature of political representation. Campaigns require candidates to mass-produce moments of intimacy; on the trail Biden displays a quixotic determination to salvage something real from them, to forge lasting friendships with a security guard in an elevator or a boy struggling with a stutter, genuine relationships that are in turn harvested by his campaign. As he tried to forge this kind of connection with Humphrey, Biden showed one of his rarer qualities — an almost painfully keen awareness of his own inadequacies.
“No, but I really mean it,” he said, and rambled a bit further, through an account of his own (white) family’s financial difficulties, before finally chancing on the words he was looking for. “You’re behind an eight-ball,” he said. “The vast majority of people of color are behind an eight-ball.” Here was some safe middle ground. “Behind an eight-ball” didn’t contradict Biden’s broadly optimistic rhetoric of America as the land of possibilities, but it did at least hint at something structural and endemic about racial inequality.
Stephanopoulos cut in again to switch to a different questioner. “I’m sorry,” Biden said softly, turning back to Humphrey. It sounded as if he were sorry for his answer, which didn’t go as far as Humphrey might have wanted, but also sorry that they didn’t have more time for some back-and-forth. Within the fake context of the fake town hall, he believed that he and Humphrey might actually be talking to, and not past, each other. His commitment was not so much to a fixed policy platform as to an endangered set of traditions and manners, one that rejected Trump’s politics of contempt.
In the final debate a week later, Biden groped for a metaphor to convincingly portray the country as a union that crisis could strengthen rather than divide. He eventually landed on the classic trope of a middle-class family at a kitchen table, faced with tough economic choices. The cliché was too much for Trump, who interrupted the moderator to get in a rebuttal.
“A typical political statement,” he said, and then added, snidely: “The family, around the table, everything.” Trump knew that the merciless shattering of collective illusions was what the voters of 2016 had wanted from him. “I’m not a typical politician,” he said. “That’s why I got elected.”