Americans today are extremely divided when it comes to politics, but they can rest easier knowing last Thursday’s presidential debate was the last trainwreck of its kind for a long time. What’s even sadder is compared to the first debate, it wasn’t that bad.
The two presidential debates offered President Donald Trump and Joe Biden the chance to make their case in front of the country and convince Americans of the best candidate. For Trump, this was essential to his reelection. After four years, countless gaffes and over 220,000 Americans dead due to COVID-19, this was his final chance to push forward in an uphill battle.
Instead of Trump giving it his all, a large part of the debate consisted of “no you” styled bickering. Ill-begotten money from shady sources, the separation of families at the border and the failure to combat a pandemic were all accusations that Trump hurled right back at Biden. For Trump to have reassured the American people, we needed a lot more than the same strategy used by grade-schoolers.
Trump has spent his entire life selling himself, on hotels, casinos, skyscrapers, the cover of his book and in his career, as a reality TV host. He shines at self-promotion but has a weakness for self-defense. When he’s forced into a position of defense and not his preferred offensive strategy, he tends to slip up. On the issue of the “catch and release” immigration policy, Trump responded that only “those with the lowest IQ” might show up to their court hearings. In reality, over 80 percent of those released from custody attended all of their hearings.
In the final 2016 debate, both candidates had a slightly calmer demeanor. Yet we could see a similar strategy by Trump to aggravate his opponent as he attempted to get under Hillary Clinton’s skin the whole debate. These debates brought us such memorable lines like, ”You’re the puppet!” This just goes to show that some things never change.
On the subject of race, Trump made the odd claims that not since Abraham Lincoln had any president done what he had done for the Black community and that he was the ”least racist person in this room.” I don’t know about you, but these kinds of statements made by Trump have always made me cringe. The awkwardness was palpable as he tried to scan the dimly lit audience for their skin tone. This is one area where Trump has seemingly stuck to his guns on self-promotion but it doesn’t quite work out.
Biden’s more aggressive strategy in the final debate seemed geared to drive Trump into a corner, during which Biden seemed to be less focused on refuting Trump’s statements. In the first debate, Trump was definitely able to get under Biden’s skin and upset him. This time around, he gave more simple answers to these attacks or outright didn’t address them.
Trump frequently attacked Biden on the scandal alleging that his son, Hunter Biden, made millions in Ukraine using his family connections. Similarly, Trump attacked Clinton in the 2016 election over her handling of the Benghazi attacks and her use of a private email server. Sticking to his old strategies has limited Trump in his ability to challenge Biden. This kind of attack is mostly irrelevant to a Biden presidency and leaves Trump in a vulnerable position to be attacked right back based on similar allegations against him.
Biden counters the attack on his son saying, “It’s not about his family or my family, it’s about your family.” Biden seemed to have most of the memorable lines of the night. He ominously said we were in for a “Dark Winter” in regards to Trump’s COVID-19 response and before you ask, yes, he did manage to throw in his signature, “malarky.”
Near the end of the debate, Trump credited himself for saving the oil industry and the current low gas prices. He then managed to somewhat coax Biden into saying that he would transition away from the oil industry. Trump capitalized on that statement, asking Texans, Pennsylvanians, Oklahomans and Ohioans, “Will you remember that?” Whether Trump’s attack worked as intended is up in the air. Oil executive Harold Hamm responded on Fox saying, “Six-dollar gas is coming if Trump isn’t re-elected,” and that a Biden presidency would lead to a deep depression. Despite that, recent polls in Texas have shown a surprising degree of support for Biden. It may sound crazy, but many of the most recent polls show Biden either tied or slightly leading Trump.
As the next few exhausting weeks drudge on and the election comes to its conclusion, we will see how the debates shaped the American public’s perceptions. They may just be seen as Trump’s squandered chance of digging himself out of a hole that he only made bigger. For all of our sakes, I can only hope that the results of the election are handled better than the final debate.
Zachary Freeman is an anthropology junior and opinion writer for The Battalion.