The First 2020 Presidential Debate

Denisa, Tomas, Daniela, and I watched the entirety of last night’s train wreck of a “debate.” I purposefully watched it on PBS, tuning in for none of the pre-debate commentary on any news stations, and turning it off soon after it was over. I didn’t want banners on the bottom of the screen highlighting different parts of the debate. I didn’t want analysis or spin. I just wanted to watch what happened and then make my mind up on my own, thank you very much.

The whole thing left me deeply unsettled and discouraged, though I’m not one who will lay the blame for that at the feet of both Trump and Biden. Yes, Biden did dip into petty name calling and exasperation, and the two of them often reminded me of some of the longer car trips I’ve been on, with the kids in the back seat goading each other. Except one of those children was doing the typical routine of elbowing their sibling in the ribs, and the other one had brought a knife and was repeatedly stabbing their sibling in the back. Treating both kids as equally naughty just doesn’t cut it in that case.

It was clear from the very beginning that Trump wasn’t there to actually debate anything. He was there to throw haymakers, one after the other. To repeatedly shout at Biden in an effort to get Biden to self destruct. I’m not honestly sure how you’re supposed to debate anyone under those circumstances, though Biden made an attempt now and then. (His strongest parts of the debate came when he ignored Trump completely and just spoke to the voters. Probably should have done more of that all night long, though I’ll be the first to admit handling a bully acting like Trump is trying in private, let alone on national television.) Several people suggested the debates would have gone much better if they’d been handled over Zoom, with the moderator having the power over the mute button. That would have helped a great deal.

Looking over the commentary online this morning, you have the typical spin doctors trying to say who won and who lost, and (surprise!) it always turns out that the party they root for ended up winning. I don’t see anything that happened last night as a win for anyone. If you wanted to tune in to see two people debate real issues and talk about what they would do to address them, you were no doubt very disappointed. I do have a few isolated comments:

  • When asked to publicly state that he doesn’t support white nationalists and supremacists, Trump ended up doing the opposite, telling the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” He was asked to tell them to “stand down.” There’s a big difference in that single preposition, and if you think it was a slip of the tongue, then all you have to do is look at the Twitter accounts of those Proud Boys to see how excited they are by the President telling them to “stand by.” It’s true that Trump did publicly condemn violence by neo-Nazis . . . one time, back in 2017, after one of them ran over a protester with their car. Trying to say that one time was enough and that it doesn’t need to be restated, in light of all the hate attacks happening right now, is pitiful. This wasn’t a trick question. This was as easy as it gets. All he had to do was say, “Yes. I find their tactics deplorable. It disgusts me that people who espouse that kind of hatred claim they’re my biggest supporters.” Something to that affect. Instead, he told them to “stand by,” because someone had to stand up to the radical left, which he said was a much bigger problem than the radical right.
  • It was interesting watching Trump trying to paint Biden as this huge tool of the radical left, citing Kamala Harris as the person who’s going to be really pulling the strings. I have no doubt this plays well with Trump’s base, but speaking as someone who’s friends with some people who are quite liberal to say the least, they view Biden as anything but. They’re disappointed he’s as middle of the road as he is, and they view Harris as more of the same. Better, but hardly pushing for the sorts of change they’d like to see. Trump kept trying to get Biden to say things that would make him “lose the radical left”: disavow the Green New Deal, say he’s against defunding the police, etc. And when Biden went ahead and said that without hesitating, Trump seemed to think he’d scored big points by forcing that. Methinks Trump’s been listening to conservative pundits too much. Don’t get me wrong: the liberal people I know are far from crazy about Biden, but they’re also under no illusions of what Trump holds for them. I know of maybe two or three people who, right after the primaries, were so disappointed they said they didn’t want to vote at all. I haven’t heard that rhetoric lately. And yet Trump seems to think if he just makes Biden disavow some of the extremes, then a good chunk of people just won’t vote for him. Instead, Trump simply illustrated how far to the right he himself is, and how centrist Biden is in comparison. I don’t think that’s a good approach to attracting undecideds. Just a hunch . . .
  • There are so many things that deserve to be debated beyond sound bites. I went into the debate worrying that would be all I got: surface level sound bites that played to the bases and did nothing else to really advance anything. I got so much less than that from Trump. Biden provided more or less what I expected. Eloquent? No. He had a couple of reasonable-ish arguments, but nothing that would have really stood out if his opponent had been a halfway decent human being. But Trump wasn’t a halfway decent human being. He threw out so many accusations and boasts, it was hard to keep track. I couldn’t know the truth of all of them off the top of my head, but in the issues I’ve followed closely (the economy, COVID, taxes, and the like), there were enough blatant lies in there that made me unlikely to believe anything else he said.
  • His insistence of fraudulent ballots and rigged elections, and his refusal to say he’ll abide by the outcome of the election, does nothing to soothe my fears. If this election is close (in Biden’s favor), I really worry where this will lead. We already have had citizens shooting citizens, and Trump is only fanning those fears higher. I have to believe enough good people in the country exist, even in politics, who will not allow this nation to devolve into a civil war over nothing more than tenuous claims of voter fraud that can’t be backed up in any meaningful way. Trump is losing in the polls, and he’s facing the fact he might lose in November. If his tax returns are what the Times said they are, then that loss might well ruin him. That would go a long way toward explaining the sense of desperation coming from him right now.

Will I watch a second or third debate? Not if they’re like that. There’s no reason to be reminded of just what sort of a caliber of person we have in office right now. I know some of you out there are still planning on voting for him. I’ve said my piece, so I won’t say more on the subject. I read one article on Fox News this morning crowing about what an excellent, commanding performance Trump had last night.

I suppose if you say anything with confidence, and say it loud enough, you might be able to convince some people about anything. Trump seemed to think that was possible last night, but to me, his approach came across as much more con than confidence. There’s a saying commonly attributed to Lincoln: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Trump’s decided to put that saying to the test this election, it seems. We’ll see in November how that pans out for him.


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