Biden/Trump presidential debate
POOL/Reuters

Trump vs Biden: The First Presidential Debate Exposed an Empire in Decline

by Freddie Stuart and Aaron White

@freddiestuart12
@aaronwolfwhite
30 September 2020
  • Estimated read time: 5 mins

Last night’s presidential debate marked a stark escalation towards the collapse of American democracy. 

With just over a month to go before the election on 3 November, Donald Trump and Joe Biden clashed in what was a revealing indictment of the state of US politics and an ominous indicator of what might still be to come. 

As Fox News anchor and debate chair Chris Wallace desperately pleaded with the candidates to adhere to the feeble debate structure, the president and former vice president engaged in a substanceless exchange of insults and inflammatory rhetoric.

Undoubtedly the most meaningful and urgent takeaway of the night, however, was Trump’s continued dismissal of the electoral process. 

Whilst a historic surge has seen over a million American’s already cast their early-voting ballots, Trump brought his twitter tirades to the debate stage, calling mail-in voting a “disaster”, and emphasising the risk of a “rigged” and “fraudulent election”. 

Citing the absurd delays for ballot counts in the New York primaries, Trump again warned that his new Supreme Court justice would play a role in arbitrating disputes over invalid ballot results. 

These comments are not unexpected. As early as February 2019, Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen told the House Oversight Committee that he feared the president wouldn’t give up the White House peacefully if he lost the 2020 election. But on the back of Trump’s “joke” at the Republican National Convention about him serving “12 more years” in office, the president’s authoritarian remarks at this debate must be taken deadly seriously. 

When pressured by Wallace to denounce white supremacy and right-wing militias, Trump instead said that the “Proud Boys”, a neo-fascist male-only group that promotes and engages in political violence, should “stand back and stand by”. 

Trump also urged for his supporters to attend and watch voters at polling stations, an intimidation tactic that could lead to violent confrontations, particularly in urban districts at the centre of recent mass protests. 

Considering this brazen assault on the political process, it is becoming clear that the only way to effectively prevent a contested election on 3 November is for Biden to pull-off a comprehensive and indisputable landslide of the electoral college. 

So in the midst of this battle for American democracy, with Trump wrecking any possibility of coherent debate, did Joe Biden do enough to convince disenfranchised voters to turn out to the polls? 

Biden: The anti-chaos candidate. 

With the very future of the US political system at stake, the bar for Biden to clear has thus far been absurdly low. 

In a 90 minute debate broadcast across all major networks (without commercial breaks), Biden survived relatively gaffe-free. For the most part, he presented a relatively calm and cogent figure, negating Trump’s recent barrage of attacks toward his mental acuity.  

He also struck an empathetic tone that contrasted poignantly with the indolence of his opponent. Speaking directly down the camera lens, Biden addressed his son’s struggle against drug addiction and appealed to the thousands of American families that have lost loved ones to the coronavirus. 

Most importantly, Biden succeeded in strategically avoiding key aspects of the partisan culture war (like abortion and guns), instead focusing his brief segments between Trump’s diatribes on the unprecedented public health emergency and economic collapse. 

Whilst Trump’s sporadic and chaotic attacks attempted to draw attention to Biden’s son Hunter and the Burisma scandal, as well as the vice president’s hard-line record on criminal justice, Biden, for the most part, stuck to this attempt to make the election a referendum on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus. 

Fending off Trump’s accusations that he’s a vehicle for the “radical left”, Biden defended his plan to extend Obamacare and pushed the president on his failure to act on or propose an alternate vision. 

Whilst dismissing Sanders’ Green New Deal, Biden did tout his own climate agenda – agreed upon during the joint task force Biden set up with former chief Democratic primary opponent Bernie Sanders – which would decarbonise the US power sector by 2035 and picked up on the popular plan to create millions of good paid unions jobs. 

‘I am the Democratic party right now.’ 

However, while taking a relatively strong position on climate, Biden’s overall strategy to counter Trump’s red scaremongering was to contrast his policy positions from those of Sanders. 

Following Trump’s line of attack, stating that the Democratic party wants to turn to “socialist healthcare”, Biden responded, claiming, “The party is me. Right now, I am the Democratic party”. 

Biden went on to reassure people that he will not end private insurance, does not support the Green New Deal and will not defund the police. 

Meanwhile, another attack line for Trump was Biden’s own criminal-justice record, with the president highlighting the former vice president’s active role in passing the 1994 Crime Bill and his implicit reference to black people as “predators”. 

Biden’s counter, calling for police accountability and denouncing “a couple of bad apples”, was devoid of any specific policy proposals. At times he played into the equivalency discourse around the protests, remarking, “Violence in response is never appropriate”, while also going as far as saying that violent protesters should be prosecuted. 

In a time where the police killing of George Floyd sparked the largest social movement in the nation’s history, these remarks were particularly dismissive of the millions of people on the streets demanding the overhaul of a racist criminal justice system. 

Faux populism. 

Over recent weeks, Biden has attempted to frame the class differences between the two candidates as “Scranton versus Park Avenue”. 

In last night’s debate, the former vice president tried to highlight the astounding level of wealth inequality in the country, stating, “The billionaires have gotten much more wealthy by a tune of over $400bn more just since Covid”. Yet again this lacked any substantive policy proposals, such as wealth tax. Instead, Biden merely stated that he is going to “eliminate the Trump tax codes and invest in people that need help”, while also raising the corporate tax rate from 21-28%.   

Beneath this empty rhetoric, there was no real discussion of the material crises facing so many Americans. There was no mention of the historic rates of jobless claims over the past several months, and the over 12m people who have lost their employer tied healthcare. 

There was no discussion of the nearly 43m Americans who are on the brink of eviction, amongst the worst housing crisis since the Great Depression. There was no serious discussion of the nearly $1.6tn worth of student debt crushing younger generations. 

And while Biden did briefly discuss his climate plans, it lacked the existential urgency that one would have expected from an opposition candidate at a time when wildfires and historic hurricanes are devastating huge swathes of the country. 

Indeed, the debate was so disconnected from the suffering inflicted on so many Americans, that many spectators were likely turned off from the spectacle all together, creating even further distrust in a broken political and party system that is incapable of meeting their most basic human needs. 

The end of the American experiment. 

As many polls have suggested for a few months now, the vast majority of the American electorate has already made up their minds on their preferred candidate. In a highly polarised political climate, what was at stake on Tuesday wasn’t swathes of swing voters, but convincing those who may otherwise not turn out of the magnitude of this election. 

With the threat of a contested vote count, Trump’s attack on the electoral process matched with a call to arms has made the possibility of a post-election constitutional crisis and street violence chillingly clear. 

Whilst Biden succeeded in presenting an image of stability in contrast to Trump, it is not clear whether this will motivate enough voters to turn out, especially those already deeply disenfranchised with electoral politics. 

One thing is certain, however. In a moment of mass suffering, with over 200,000 people dead from Covid-19 and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the squabbles of two old white men on a debate stage were miles away from the material conditions facing the majority of Americans. 

Last night was just the latest indication that the experiment in American democracy is collapsing before our very eyes.  

Freddie Stuart is the producer of the ourVoices podcast at openDemocracy. Aaron White is the North America Editor of the ourEconomy section at openDemocracy. He is based in New York. Their recent work covering the US election can be found here.

Published 30 September 2020

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