The truth is stranger: Thoughts on the first 2020 presidential debate

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Graphic by James Howe

Nick DeMarchis, Senior Writer

Breaking the precedent of almost every other presidential debate ever, the Sept. 29 debate between current U.S. President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden served not only to somehow miss the mark on already subterranean expectations, but to deliver the American people another fresh dose of intense reality and fear. Marked by a consistent lack of decorum, frequent interruptions and comparatively little discussion of substantive policy ideas, this debate was remarkably uninformative to the American people. “I found myself repeatedly wondering why anyone who, like me, isn’t paid to watch the debate stayed with it for more than about the first 10 minutes,” CNN commentator Chris Cillizza said. Anyone who managed to stick with it longer than that is now suddenly well-acquainted with feelings of cringe, sadness and fear, all wrapped up into one.

I would be remiss to pretend that the parties were equal in their disruption of normal courtesy; moderator Chris Wallace only needed to stop the debate to remind one candidate of their campaign’s commitment to the debate rules. Trump is, quite literally, an impossible person to contain within the confines of appropriate decorum. Wallace’s gumption was still trumped within the first 10 minutes by a repeated barrage of vindictive interruptions of Biden’s speaking time. The two minutes of uninterrupted discussion at the beginning of a question is a vital aspect of debates, and is a rule for which the president showed particular disdain. Especially in a world where social media has polarized the political sphere and ensured that political opposites exist in totally separate universes, those two minutes, uninterrupted, is positively vital to have any chance of breaking such well-insulated echo chambers.

About 73 million people tuned in to see the president interrupt about 73 times. His performance was also characterized by a flurry of outright lies, including claims of Biden’s support of Medicare for All, flat-out inaccurate job-growth numbers and unsubstantiated claims of “voter fraud.” This was compounded by Trump’s failure to condemn white supremacy on the national stage that night; most would agree that “stand back and stand by” is more a statement of forbearance than disavowal.

As a consequence of the debate’s relative cacophony, voters were unable to take away any substantive points on policy issues. Only one actual new piece of meta-information surfaced from this 90-minute unintelligible tirade: that Biden is actually capable of placing together coherent thoughts to share with the American people. In January, I wrote of the Democratic primary debate that Biden “is always a hilarious character to watch … subject to his signature gaffes and self-timeouts.” While the hilarity has certainly subsided with the confirmation of his nomination at the Convention in late August, he performed markedly better here than in the earlier primary season. Despite the adverse circumstances, Biden held his own at the debate by attempting to speak through Trump’s meandering attacks to discuss his own policy positions. The keyword here is “attempt,” since Biden, who frequently touts his “presidential” attitude, delivered multiple remarks towards his opponent that obviously trend towards argumentative and, yes, “unpresidential.”

One of the lighter moments of the debate is when Biden explicitly said that he opposes the Green New Deal, a House resolution detailing sweeping policies to combat climate change. This led Trump to quip, “You just lost the radical left,” which led me to think of two things: one, that this would be Biden’s problem, not Trump’s, and two, that remark actually served to weaken Trump’s own recurring argument that Biden is an inept marionette of the more Democratic party’s progressive wing.

However, this debate was straight-up horrible. I’ve watched reruns of most of the debates in recent memory, and while I disagreed with plenty of the points that many of the candidates made, not one of them made me afraid for our nation’s future. But here we are: it’s 2020, so it makes sense to have such a disquieting (and yet so ambiguous and uninformative) debate fill our headlines as tens of thousands of Americans begin the electoral process. We knew this would be bad; we knew that we’d be lied to, that there’d be fireworks, that people from both sides would decisively declare victory afterward. But I genuinely thought I’d be spared fears about the future of our nation. The related SNL skit somehow served to quell nerves, perhaps because there was at least a general knowledge that it was all an act. 

In the final analysis of our first presidential debate, the conventional adage holds that truth is stranger than fiction, and in 2020, I guess it also holds to wish the truth of last Tuesday would be some other reality altogether. 

If you are an American citizen here in Lewisburg this fall, you are eligible to vote in Pennsylvania. It takes about four minutes to register, and you can do so easily at bucknell.turbovote.org.

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