Jonathan Lewis analyses Tuesday night's chaotic debate.
On the 29th of September America sat down to watch the first US Presidential Debate between former Vice-President Joe Biden and the incumbent, Donald Trump. During the 2016 election Trump became the master of controlling the narrative. But in a year that has seen a pandemic, a global civil rights movement, climate disasters, and a presidential impeachment, the question is: has Trump lost control?
Chris Wallace of Fox News moderated the debate and selected the questions under six themes. The stage was set and in the strangest year on record, America returned to its comfort zone: two old white men ‘debating’ why they can be the change the country needs.
Wallace started by asking why each candidate believes they should be the one to select the new Supreme Court Justice. Trump says he should get preference because he is president and that is a power given to the president. Biden wants to let the American people decide by allowing them to vote him in as president, so that, well, he can decide. Neither was convincing.
While both candidates at times discussed the main issues: Coronavirus, the economy, and racial injustice, the debate will be remembered for a number of one-liners and shock moments.
The discussion then devolved into a chaotic playground spat, and while both candidates at times discussed the main issues: Coronavirus, the economy, and racial injustice, the debate will be remembered for a number of one-liners and shock moments.
The most memorable one-liner, however, came when Biden uttered the words, we, the listeners, would repeat over and over in our heads for the next hour and a half: “Shut up, man"
Biden succeeded in calling Trump a “clown”, “the worst President that America has ever had” and a “liar”. Trump responded by saying “there’s nothing smart about you Joe”, attacking Biden’s family and calling Biden part of the “extreme left”. The most memorable one-liner, however, came when Biden uttered the words, we, the listeners, would repeat over and over in our heads for the next hour and a half: “Shut up, man”.
On the main policy issues Biden was stronger, largely because he can now blame everything wrong with America on Trump, a tactic Trump used on the Democrats in 2016. Biden was quick to point out America’s catastrophic response to Coronavirus: “We, in fact, have 4% of the world’s population, 20% of deaths”, says Biden.
On the economy, Biden and Wallace questioned Trump on his taxes after a New York Times report earlier in the week showed Trump had paid no federal income tax in ten of the last fifteen years. Trump quickly deflected any criticisms by saying he has paid “millions in income tax” and attacking Biden’s son.
Both candidates tip-toed around racial injustice. While Biden has historically been popular with African Americans, both candidates have sticking points. For the former Vice President it is his controversial 1994 Crime Bill. For Trump it is that, in the wake of the 2017 Unite the Right Rally, he called the crowds carrying Nazi flags “very fine people”.
While talking about racial injustice, Wallace clearly and deliberately asked Trump to denounce White Supremacists. This led to the first shock moment. Trump stumbled and, sensing weakness, Biden joined Wallace, both seemingly baiting Trump into saying something outlandish. “The Proud Boys?” said Trump on cue, “stand back and stand by”.
The second shocking moment came towards the end of the debate, after Biden said he would accept the results of the election whether he won or lost. Wallace asked Trump what he was going to do about election fraud, insinuating by his question that election fraud is already a real thing. Trump refused to say that he would accept the result of the election or take part in a peaceful transition of power. We will have to wait and find out what this means. .
After ninety minutes of interruptions and bickering it is difficult to see any real winner. Trump is running out of shock factor. Pandemics, civil unrest and state-wide forest fires have taken his thunder. But for his supporters he had his moments. He succeeded in confusing Biden, he was more dominant and aggressive and ensured he kept himself in the news by giving a far-right white supremacist group, the Proud Boys, a call to arms.
Biden had moments of energy where he looked down the camera and it seemed that at least one of these two ego-driven men cared about the American people more than their own pride. Biden’s main victory, however, will be that he stayed out of trouble and didn’t give Trump ammunition to build a narrative around leading into the November 3rd election.
The next debate will take place on the 7th of October and will be between Vice-President Mike Pence and Joe Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris. Two more Presidential debates are due to take place on the 15th and 22nd of October, however with the recent report that Trump has contracted Coronavirus himself, it is unclear whether they will go ahead. The US is due to go to the polls to decide their next President on the 3rd of November.
The easiest place to watch the debates in Ireland is on the C-SPAN YouTube channel.