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Lessons in Incivility: The First US Presidential Debate

Published on 30 September 2020 at 16:15

The moment has finally come, the long-awaited first debate took place last night between US president Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. And what a debate it was. “Slugfest”, “utter chaos” and “caustic” have been used to describe the event but the main word that comes to mind is ‘uncivil’.

It was an ugly affair by all accounts, featuring Trump interjecting above Biden near constantly, Biden slumping to trading insults with the president and the moderator struggling to control the debate which had been agreed upon strict but simple parameters; 2 minutes of interrupted speech on each of the 6 topics, and a further 11 minutes of general discussion in each. The moderator in question was Chris Wallace, host of ‘Fox News Sunday’ and a moderator between Clinton and Trump in 2016. The debate also featured no handshakes, testing of all those in attendance and social distancing of the audience.

The first topic was one that has been on everyone’s lips in recent weeks: The Supreme Court and the judiciary. Trump, as always, kept his points simple: Republicans have the authority and the obligation when holding the Senate and White House to appoint judges when openings emerge and that he was “elected for 4 years. Not 3 and a half”. Biden had a weak start, failing to counter Trump’s argument on the legitimacy of Coney Barrett’s appointment and instead opting to talk about possible ramifications of a conservative Supreme Court on healthcare. This caused the segment to spiral into a shouting match about Obamacare.

Trump then had to defend himself on coronavirus, pointing out that his early-travel ban saved lives, bragging about his PPE production and attacking Biden over his criticism of the travel ban and his handling of the swine flu while in office. One of the many comic moments of the night saw Trump claim that Biden’s rallies were not sparse due to social distancing concerns but unpopularity; “nobody will show up”. Biden took aim at Trump’s undermining of scientists and experts and accused the president of lying to the American people by downplaying the virus. Bickering over the economy saw both candidates touting the success of their terms in the Oval Office and was inconclusive with both men lacking concrete policies for recovery of the economy. Trump dodged questions about his tax returns.

One of the most passionate segments featured race relations. Trump targeted far-left militants and Democrat governors for the violence sweeping the US over recent months. He also pressed Biden on law and order, asking him which law enforcement groups supported him, to which Biden had no reply. Biden instead opted to talk about justice and branded Trump a racist and accused him of attempting to rile up hate and division. Trump drew attention to Biden’s controversial 1994 crime bill that disproportionately affects black Americans and use of the term “super predators”. Trump bungled a question on racial sensitivity training which should have been an easy win but generally was in his comfort zone in this segment relying on the “law and order” rhetoric to assuage his base.

Trump floundered when the discussion moved onto climate change. Instead of answering the questions asked, Trump instead opted to ramble on about forest management being the cause of California’s wildfires and preach about “forest cities” in Europe. Interestingly though, he did press Biden to disavow the controversial ‘Green New Deal’. Biden had a much stronger performance on this topic, promising to re-join the Paris Accords if elected and assuring more jobs would be created by conversion to renewable energy sources than lost.

The final segment concerned electoral integrity and the controversial mail-in ballots. Trump continued his line of attack on mail voting, a form of voting favoured by Democratic voters. Biden used this opportunity among many others on the night to address the camera directly and speak to Americans watching the debate in an effort to urge them to vote and not let Trump’s scaremongering dissuade them. Biden was also comfortable in assuring he would accept the result of the election, in contrast to Trump’s evasion of any such guarantee. His continued intransigence makes a messy and bitter election process seem inevitable. It is likely the Supreme Court may have to weigh in on the validity of many ballots and the result of the election could take weeks or months to be confirmed.

Wallace has received a lot of flak online for his handling of the debate and many Trump supporters accuse him of being heavily biased against the president, given that he spent much more time halting Trump. However, such criticism is unfair given that objectively Trump did the majority of interruptions and heckling. Some feel Wallace should have taken a back-seat when the debate moved to ‘open discussion’ but his interventions probably saved the last vestiges of order in the veritable shouting match that was the first presidential debate. Trump was even more vicious and dogged than usual, perhaps spurred by Biden’s many snorts, headshakes and looks of incredulity. However, Trump was not the only one to lose his cool at times, Biden telling his opponent to “shut up” and branding him a “clown” and the “worst president this country has ever had”.

Trump as usual, was combative and belligerent. He repeated his line of attack on Hunter Biden and the millions he reputedly received from the mayor of Moscow’s wife, however he misstepped by mentioning his discharge from the military for a failed drugs test. Biden retorted well when he stated poignantly and strongly that his son had had a drug problem but that he had moved past it and that Biden was proud of him. Such a moment surely resonated in many homes watching the debate across the US. Similarly, Biden stood out when he boasted of his son’s service in Iraq and attacked Trump’s disrespect for the military (based on the unproven claim that Trump called US war dead “losers”). The debate was incredibly personal, even Joe Biden disparaging Trump’s family and Trump claiming; “I’ve done more in 47 months than you’ve done in 47 years”. The bitter personal shots do not seem likely to relinquish anytime soon.

Reaction to the debate has been relatively uniform. The consensus is that the debate was a distasteful, toxic and indecorous affair. Few are proud of it. Most agree there was no clear winner with each side of the political divide awarding victory according to their loyalties. Neither side can claim a resounding victory. Many are ready to give Biden the victory for not appearing a doddering, senile mess. Hardly a high bar to award triumph in a debate for supposedly the most powerful position in the world. Perhaps the most universal take away from the debate from all sides has been despair at the state of politics in the country.

So, who wakes up this morning the winner?

The debate will most likely not win many undecided voters to either side, not that there are many undecided voters. Trump’s base will and indeed have seen the debate as a win but most of his supporters decided who they were voting for in this election back in 2016. Biden avoided any serious gaffes, a clear triumph when one considers Trump’s tactics the whole night was to press Biden hard and force a slip-up. Most undecided and Democratic voters saw nothing on the night that would stop them voting for Biden, even if they felt he was mediocre. And with a clear lead in every poll, this is all Biden needs. As such, the debate becomes a win by default for the Biden campaign.

All eyes now turn to the vice-presidential debate on October 7th between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris. Not to be disregarded as a side act, the vice-president’s debate carries all the more weight this year with Joe Biden’s age and health in question and the strong possibility that Kamala Harris may step in to take the reins in the White House at some point in the 4 year term should Biden win the election. The vice president’s debate will hopefully focus on policy more and less on the personalities of the two men heading each campaign. Mike Pence is considered a polished performer on such occasions and his strong show against Kaine in the 2016 election campaign led many to question whether his should be the first name on the ticket.

Trump and Biden will meet on the stage again on the 15th and 22nd of October. The vitriol will only be multiplied as we move closer to the election and Trump’s chance to claw back enough support to stay in the White House diminish. As he is backed further and further into a corner, he will only fight the fiercer for survival.


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