2020 US Election

Trump trashes First Presidential Debate

This was not a debate

Ian Lising, Assistant Professor, Speech Communication, University of LaVerne

Rene Magritte’s Treachery of Images challenged people with a meta message to see things from a new perspective. I just wish that the perspective that we all had for the Travesty of Words we were just tormented with tonight was the view from another room. A room with complete silence. This was not a debate. There was no listening, crucial in even the most basic forms of debate. There wasn’t even the attempt to listen. Moderator Chris Wallace was powerless to reign in any semblance of order. I have been involved in competitive debating since 1988, and never have I witnessed anything even close to this mockery of intelligent discourse. Then again, why did we expect anything better or different?

Trump outdid himself with even talking over the Moderator repeatedly. He had absolutely no decorum nor framework for intelligible coherence. Tragically, after Biden’s “it is what it is because you are who you are” zinger, he tried to play “Joe Cool” but seemed to lose the plot way too many times. Trump dictated the pace and controlled the debate. But by no means does this mean that he won. This doesn’t mean that Biden won either. There may not have been a winner in this yelling event, but there was definitely a loser. We all lost. 98 minutes of our lives we will never get back.

Biden wins this debate on substance, but American democracy the clear loser

Dr. Jason L Jarvis, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Communication Studies, Loyola Marymount University

Biden started poorly but grew stronger as the debate progressed and gained his footing when the debate moved to Covid-19 and Climate Change.  While Trump was very effective stylistically, substantively he offered nothing in the way of policy ideas.  Moreover, his personal attacks on Biden were mean-spirited and just plain boneheaded. Trump’s position on election integrity made him appear weak and insecure about his chances while casting doubt on the foundation of American democracy.

Style and manner: it was clear from the beginning that President Trump wanted to varnish his own anti-media brand by debating moderator Chris Wallace as well as Joe Biden.  From my perspective, Trump was ahead during the first half of the debate because his combative style clearly rattled Biden who couldn’t figure out how to manage the situation when moderator Chris Wallace lost control. By villainizing Wallace and Biden, Trump initially created the chaos he thrives in and both opponents were flustered.

Biden, in contrast to Trump’s scowling confidence, fumbled for answers regularly during the first half hour.  Trump constantly interrupted during Biden’s answers making it hard for him to complete sentences.  For most people, this would be a terrible rhetorical strategy.  It makes you look irritating and inconsiderate.  However, this is totally on brand for Trump and Biden looked very defensive while Trump exuded confidence.  The result was that the debate was messy and incoherent – perfect for Trump, but horrible for Biden who is seeking to create a perceptual difference between himself and Trump. 

Biden eventually found his footing as the debate wore on and Trump’s scowl began to deepen into what looked like rage.  Wallace never successfully controlled Trump, but he did more forcefully protect Biden’s speech time during the later stages of the debate.  Biden turned a corner when he began to drop one liners – effectively dinging Trump for claiming that COVID-19 would be gone by April and ridiculing him for his comments about injecting bleach.  Ridiculing people who are angry and aggressive is a good strategy and one that team Biden would do well to expand on in future debates.

Substance and matter: Biden consistently tried to provide answers, while Trump mainly threw punches.  While style is Trump’s strength, his weakness is substance.  Trump advanced almost nothing, and abdicated an opportunity to describe his health care policy, choosing instead to ridicule Obamacare.  Trump’s speeches were peppered with conspiracy theories and ad-hominem attacks against Joe Biden.  These tricks might work with his base, but it is unlikely they will appeal to any voter sitting on the fence and hoping to see substantive policy proposals. 

Trump attacked Biden for the size of his mask (and how often he wears it) and for being a tool of the “radical left” who would “destroy the suburbs.” Trump also went on a bizarre rant about Biden not being “smart” because he didn’t go to a good enough university.  One of Biden’s selling points is that he is a normal guy who understands the problems of average people.  It is beyond me how attacking graduates of state colleges and universities is a good look for a purported populist like Trump, particularly given how many people were forced to go to a state school solely for financial reasons.  That the debate took place in the “Rust Belt” state of Ohio (and just a few days after America learned Trump pays almost nothing in income taxes) only magnifies the self-own by Trump here.

On climate change Biden sounded confident and knowledgeable.  He successfully defined a plan for greening the economy and stimulating job growth while Trump rambled about “forest management” and the wildfire problem in California.  Similarly on race, Trump claimed that he did a lot for Black Americans, but refused to denounce his white supremacist supporters.  He also failed to talk about systemic racism, instead launching into a diatribe about ANTIFA and Democratic mayors in Portland, Chicago and Minneapolis.  In contrast, Biden at least defended the idea of bringing police officials and civil rights leaders together for a summit to try and hammer out policy solutions. 

The debate concluded with what can only be described as the most chilling moment in American democracy in the last fifty years: a sitting President refused to accept the results of the election.  Trump argued (without evidence) that mail-in ballots cannot be trusted.  Trump himself votes in Florida by mail, but he finished the debate arguing that the process is rigged and that fraud is already widespread.  Biden suggested (without evidence) that Trump has no choice but to accept the results.  It is still not clear how Trump would be removed if he is determined to be the loser but does not accept the veracity of an election process he already claims is fraudulent.

In sum, Biden wins this debate on substance, but the clear loser is American democracy. If we take the President at his word, a Constitutional crisis appears inevitable in November.

One man to blame for a new low in presidential debates

Ray D’Cruz, Founder, Election Debates

On any debate criteria you choose to apply, Biden won. The fragments of arguments that emerged from the chaos fell for Biden, whether it was the state of the economy Trump inherited, healthcare, climate change action, law and order or Trump’s response to Covid-19.

Occasionally Biden got lost in details – usually because of Trump’s interruptions – but he had some details. Trump kept shooting himself in the foot: trying to be serious about Covid while mocking Biden for wearing a mask, refusing to condemn white supremacists, and reserving the right to dispute the election with violence. Every moment he had an opportunity to show virtue he stuffed up.

Biden engaged with the audience, addressing the television audience directly, to camera. Trump was so busy trying to rile Biden or argue with moderator Chris Wallace that he forgot about the audience. This was significant for Biden who wants to push the message that he cares about people while Trump cares only about himself. At times Trump’s baiting succeeded, which diminished Biden’s performance. Both had some good one-liners, but that doesn’t make a debate, not for us anyway.

If Trump’s strategy was to draw the focus away from himself and to Biden, he failed. The president’s insatiable need to dominate both his opponent and the moderator put the spotlight back on himself. His other strategy was to attack Biden on personal issues where Trump is himself vulnerable: nepotism and academic performance. It’s was a brave strategy, poorly executed. It merely served to reinforce the president’s weaknesses for anyone with basic recall.

Biden came to debate, Trump came to set fire to it. He created a new low in presidential debates, surpassing his 2016 performance. Reject any notion that says both men were responsible for what happened. If a candidate turns up to a debate, and refuses to stick by the rules, they lose.


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