“Will you shut up, man!”: an unpresidential first debate

REPORT

The first US presidential TV debate went live last night from Cleveland, Ohio. The 90-minute debate was the first out of three (5 October in Miami, Florida and 22 October in Nashville, Tennessee) in the run-up to the general election on November 3rd. The debate was shown live on every major network and cable news channel. It went live at 2am on BBC News for the British public and is available on YouTube for all those who missed it last night. The headline of this article summarises – in Joe Biden’s very words in response to Trump’s interruptions – the rhetorical level of last night’s debate. The Financial Times described the debate as an ‘ugly spectacle;’ The Times instead remarked that there was no winner, but a big loser: America. ‘Dumpster fire,’ ‘train wreck,’ and ‘monstrous’ are some of the more colourful phrases used by the press to describe the debate, according to Huffington Post. Certainly, next Saturday’s SNL Cold Open is something we can’t wait to see.

The series of events in the last week has inflamed the political discourse in the United States. There are several irons in the fire including Trump’s tax scandal and Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment to the US Supreme Court. This is without mentioning the incumbent’s obsession with Biden taking a drug test as well as unprecedented outbursts about not accepting the result should he lose.

The debate was moderated by Fox Sunday News’ Chris Wallace who, according to most political commentators, appeared to lose control of the two challengers in what was probably the most chaotic debate in recent history. As always, the candidates each had two minutes to answer the questions on six topics previously chosen by Mr. Wallace. The pace of the debate, however, was frantic.

For months Trump has been questioning Biden’s mental health – and his ability to carry out his presidential duties if elected. The frequent attempts to interrupt Biden as he spoke were intended to confuse the former Vice-President and highlight his lack of acumen and stamina. However, it seemed the incumbent did not achieve the desired effect, as viewers were instead gifted with the following soundbite from Biden: “folks, do you have any idea what this clown is doing?”

On racial injustice, Donald Trump continued a familiar rhetoric, refusing to condemn white supremacists whom he referred to as “Proud Boys.” Instead, the President encouraged them to “do something about Antifa and the left”. Yet again, Mr Trump suggested that he might not accept the voting results and claimed that, contrary to all available evidence, thousands of ballots are being manipulated. “This is going to be fraud like you’ve never seen,” the incumbent thundered.

As approximately a million Americans have now posted their vote, last night’s debate did not add much to this year’s presidential election, aside from a lot of tragicomic entertainment and a bitter taste about the poor quality of the political discourse in America – and, perhaps, worldwide.

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