The first US presidential debate, which took place on the evening of Tuesday 29 September, did not live up to its title. It instead contained over 90 minutes of President Donald Trump yelling, interrupting, insulting, and lying. Fox News moderator Chris Wallace had little to no control, at points giggling and at points reminding Trump that each man had two minutes to speak uninterrupted. Pundits after the fact were aghast (CNN’s Dana Bash called it a “shit show”).
Former vice-president and Democratic candidate Joe Biden got some talking points in, and at some points managed to chuckle, shake his head or say, “shut up man”. His most effective move was ignoring Trump and speaking to the camera, telling whoever was listening that it’s about them, the people suffering in a pandemic that has taken 200,000 American lives, and not about Trump. At one point, he was able to take a low blow from Trump about his son Hunter Biden’s battle with drug addiction and turn it into a genuinely human moment; sharing that, yes, like many Americans, his son had problems with drug use.
Still, it’s hard to feel anyone won this debate, and harder still to feel the American people weren’t the losers. If you would like to relive the play by play of the event itself, you can read our live blog here. But if you would rather the top three takeaways:
Trump did not condemn white supremacy: At one point, in a segment that was about race and law enforcement, Wallace asked Trump if he would condemn white supremacy. Trump said that the real problem was the left – the exact quote was, “I would say that almost everything I see is from the left wing” – and Antifa (which stands for “anti-fascist”). He then said, to the Proud Boys, which is a far-right group, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” That is not a condemnation. It could even be understood to be an encouraging order. One of our top takeaways of the night should be that the US president declined to condemn white supremacy on national television.
Trump told his supporters to watch people casting their votes: At the end of 90 minutes of shouting, Trump and Biden were asked if they would accept the results of the election, not declare victory until victory had been certified, and tell their supporters not to engage in civil unrest. Biden said yes and that Trump’s bluster was to dissuade people from voting. Trump repeated his lie about fraud via mail-in ballot and then said that he was calling on his supporters not to accept the results of the election, but to go to the polls and “watch very closely”. By this he did not mean that they should register as official poll watchers. He meant that they should go to the polls to determine whether there was anything amiss. This is not up for random Trump supporters to decide, and if random Trump supporters do that, they could be engaging in voter intimidation.
Viewers will not be encouraged to vote from watching this debate: People mostly tuned in to root for their guy. According to a CBS poll, 73 per cent were watching as cheerleaders, while only 6 per cent were watching to make up their minds. Still, it’s hard to imagine that anyone who was not already decided and was relying on the debate to help them come to some resolution was able to glean much about policy.
According to a CBS poll, 48 percent said Biden won the debate whereas just 41 percent said so of Trump. That may have been reflective of the opinions people had before turning on the debate. If one believes Frank Luntz, a pollster known for developing Republican messaging, the debate convinced undecided voters to not vote at all.
Debates are, to be sure, not as important for American voters as they were in the days of John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon; we’re now inundated with audio and visual footage of the candidates. But watching this, it was hard to fathom what, if any, purpose they serve at all.