Playing the Trump card: Did anyone ‘win’ the first Presidential debate?

Dr Tom Neuhaus, Head of Discipline for Humanities at the University of Derby, considers the fallout from the first Presidential debate and what Donald Trump’s positive coronavirus test could mean for the election.

Exasperating, but nothing new

The first debate between the two contenders for the American presidency, incumbent Donald Trump and former US Vice-President Joe Biden, may have ranged broadly across topics such as Covid-19, law enforcement, the economy, racism, and climate change.

However, the only thing the two presidential candidates demonstrated was that they were unable to engage in a debate without constantly shouting over each other and exasperating their moderator further and further. Internationally, the media have seen the debate as an embarrassment for the United States, and a sign that American politics is doomed for the foreseeable future.

Many commentators have decried the rudeness with which the speakers (and the incumbent in particular) interrupted each other, yet the lack of civility in the debate is perhaps not as novel or interesting a phenomenon as some people would have it.

In decades past, plenty of politicians had their uncouth moments. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was famous for his blustery manner, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl once launched into a physical attack against a bystander who had thrown a raw egg at him, and parliaments across the world have been turning heckling into a fine art over decades, if not centuries.

What is noteworthy, however, is that this behaviour now seems to be coupled with a lack of vision and principles. Large parts of the debate were vague in terms of substance and consisted of little more than the two speakers accusing each other of telling untruths or of berating each other about the hypothetical outcomes of a coronavirus response led by Biden. Trump, in particular, offered very little concrete and certainly did not provide a clear vision for a second term in office, choosing instead to attack what he (not always accurately) believed Biden’s policies to be.

Repackaging each other’s politics

In an attempt to tap into the emotionally charged nature of US politics, both speakers subtly, but no doubt consciously, wove in attempts to convince viewers of their moral fibre, implying that their respective opponent lacked regard for supposedly typical American values. Biden painted himself as an ordinary American, who is familiar with the life of ordinary workers and Americans in the suburbs, and repeatedly portrayed Trump as a part of a detached golf-playing, tax-dodging elite.

In turn, Trump went to great lengths to depict Biden as unpatriotic, repeatedly accusing Biden of having neglected veterans, and even drawing on the discharge of Biden’s son from the navy. At several points he even mobilised one of the greatest traditional fears of the American political establishment and accused Biden of having socialist policies and being supported by what he referred to as the ‘radical left’.

Nonetheless, some more substantial issues received coverage. One issue that has for a long time occupied a central place in American debates is the role of the state and the extent to which it should regulate people’s lives. It is here where some of the differences between the two candidates become most apparent. Trump accused Biden of wanting too much state intervention in areas such as healthcare and the economy, yet was keen for the state to play a strong role in law enforcement.

Law and order, too, turned out to be central part of the debate, with Trump attracting public ire for failing to denounce white supremacist groups such as the ‘Proud Boys’.

At this point, it probably became clear to many viewers outside of America not only how divided American politics has been in the past few years, but also just how far removed the ‘centre ground’ in the US is from common positions in Western European politics. Statements that would be regarded as centrist in most Western European states appear radically left-wing in the context of the United States. 

Foreign policy featured little, even when topics were covered that touched upon global issues, such as climate change. Where America’s international position was discussed, this was largely limited to Trump repeating his well-known mantra about the dangers that China is posing for the US, not only economically but also through what he calls the ‘Chinese plague’, i.e. Covid. Without pre-empting what the remaining presidential debates may bring, this may be symptomatic of just how much the United States has withdrawn from wanting to play any kind of constructive in the global community.

Considering the debate effect

The big question is of course whether a debate of this nature is likely to have any impact? Will it serve to entrench existing fault lines in American politics, or will it actually change minds? It is likely that many of Trump’s supporters will continue to back him, as it is precisely his ‘no-nonsense’ style that they appreciate.

However, it is not inconceivable that performances such as the one in this debate may serve to alienate a small number of voters. Given the relatively close results of previous elections, and the difference that a low turnout could make, it is possible that this may be enough to swing the results next month. This will, however, also depend on the reactions of Trump’s opponent, who perhaps rose to the bait a bit too frequently in this first debate to emerge from it as a winner.

…and Covid

A similar question can no doubt be asked about the most recent announcement that Donald and Melania Trump have tested positive for Covid. While it is currently still unclear whether Trump will be badly affected by the disease, it is not inconceivable that this news may affect how the next few weeks play out.

Should Trump be unable to partake fully in campaigning, this is likely to damage him, as his style is so much centred on his personality, and on large public events. While Boris Johnson actually received some degree of public sympathy earlier in the year when he was visibly unwell, it is far from certain whether Trump would receive the same.

This of course is very much speculation, and no doubt 2020 has many further surprises in store for us.

For further press information please contact the Corporate Communications Team on 01332 593419, pressoffice@derby.ac.uk or @derbyunipress

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