By Olivia Majors, News Editor
On Tuesday night, people around the country tuned in to watch the first 2020 Presidential debate. Over ninety minutes later, most viewers were left feeling depressed and frustrated over the infantile bickering that took place.
The chaotic clash between Democratic candidate Joe Biden and Republican incumbent president Donald Trump took place on Sept. 29 in Cleveland, Ohio. The moderator, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, lost control of the debate within the first five minutes and never regained decorum. He had the near-impossible job of controlling a president who had no intention of abiding by the agreed-upon debate rules. Biden walked on stage, seemingly prepared to have an informed discussion about the numerous issues facing our nation, while Trump walked on stage prepared to prevent such a discussion from occurring.
Given the inundation of childish insults and disparagements, there was very little policy discussion on Tuesday night. According to a CBS poll conducted immediately after the debate, only 18% of viewers walked away feeling “informed,” a sharp contrast to the 69% who walked away feeling “annoyed.” This jarring (but unsurprising to anyone who watched the debate) piece of data raises an important question: Are presidential debates even necessary anymore?
“Seriously — if there weren’t any more debates, would that be a problem? Anyone served by this mess?” Republican strategist Russ Schriefer said.
The first televised presidential debate took place between Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat John F. Kennedy in 1960, and since 1976, presidential debates have been fixtures of each election. In a pre-internet world, these debates served as effective blends of policy and performance curated to inform voters on who the best person for the job of president would be.
How did that devolve into two men hurling insults and false claims across a stage at each other?
Often after debates, headlines pop up declaring one candidate the “winner” of the debate, and one the “loser.” In this debate, the only clear outcome was one big loser: the integrity of American democracy.
The issue seen on the night of Sept. 29th was not solely a problem with the modern system of debates. Although modifications are evidently necessary, Tuesday’s debate could be seen as a reflection of an ailing democracy in the era of Trump.
In a functional democracy, political opponents respect each other’s rights to participate in civil discourse and allow voters to hear both perspectives. If an incumbent president cannot abide by the simple, negotiated rules of a debate, the public cannot be surprised when he is unwilling to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.
The President shocked people around the world when he told the white supremacy group Proud Boys to “stand down and stand by.” These words are a leader’s commands, not a president’s condemnation. By failing to denounce white supremacy when given the opportunity, President Trump twisted the debate from an exchange of policy positions into an opportunity to incite fear and division in the nation.
When talking about the high COVID-19 death toll, Biden looked Trump in his eyes and said, “It is what it is, because you are who you are.” This line alone sums up both the state of the debate and the state of political discourse under Trump’s control: undignified, angry chaos.
Although much of his base would see it differently, on Tuesday night, the President failed the American people. For international viewers, the debate served as a pitiful display of the dysfunction of modern American politics. For domestic viewers, it was confusing and overwhelming for undecided voters, and was an embarrassment and abandonment of what were once considered American ideals.
If Biden takes office in January, it would not be the end of the Trump Era. President Trump has left a legacy: a wounded democracy and a twisted lens through which Americans see civil discourse.