The United States 2020 elections and the future of presidential debates

“This is so unpresidential…”

The former Vice-President Joe Biden lamented at the end of the first segment of Tuesday’s presidential debate between him and President Trump, neatly summing up the majority public opinion over what ensued over the course of those 90 minutes. 

President Trump’s unrelenting interruptions had thrown the proceedings into chaos and had left the debate’s moderator, Chris Wallace, floundering to drag the candidates back on topic.  

Subsequent to the debate, unprecedented calls came from journalists, academics, and the general public for the remaining debates to be cancelled. 

The message the public sent was clear, Trump’s rhetoric had crossed from being distasteful, to becoming dangerous. 

The presidential debates have become somewhat of a fixture of American democracy over the years since 1960 when the debate between Nixon and Kennedy was first televised. 

Whether or not a candidate’s performance can make or break their campaign is an open question among pundits, but it has been found that, while voters find the debates useful, they generally don’t find them determinative.

Tuesday’s debate is unlikely to be an exception to this, with a poll from Monmouth recording that while 74% of Americans planned to watch the debate on Tuesday, only 3% of them considered it ‘very likely’ to sway their votes. 

This could reveal a growing polarisation in American politics. However, it seems more likely that those who tune in are not looking for defining moments between candidates. 

Rather, they tune in to see a match-up between the two opponents and they have an invested interest in one or the other coming out victorious.  

That is not to say that the debates do not have an impact. Tens of millions of Americans watch them and millions more watch from across the world. 

The impact seems, though, to primarily exist in how the candidate mobilises their supporters, not in whether they sway their opponents.  

To this end, there are those who believe that Trump used the platform afforded to him by the debate on Tuesday night with reckless abandon. According to Nielsen, there were 73 million people watching through their televisions and, undoubtedly, countless more streamed it online. 

To this massive audience, Trump’s exaggerated claims about ballot fraud, refusal to commit to a peaceful transferral of power and to condemn white supremacists, encouraged his supporters to use intimidation tactics at the polls. 

To those watching, one of the most memorable moments of the night came when Wallace asked President Trump whether he would condemn white supremacist groups. 

Trump asked for a name and Biden jumped in to suggest the Proud Boys, a group which self-identifies as “Western chauvinists” and views the White male as a demographic which is under threat. President Trump’s response was, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by”. 

Unsurprisingly, regardless of whatever intention you may ascribe to the President, the Proud Boys saw this as a command rather than a condemnation. On the social media site, Telegram, the Proud Boys account wrote, “Standing down and standing by sir” and, more worryingly, Proud Boy’s organiser, Joe Briggs, posted on Parler, a right-wing social network, “Trump basically said to go f— them up”. 

Subsequent to the debate, national election law expert at UC Irvine, Rick Hasen warned of the need for election officials to anticipate “rogue Trump supporters taking matters into their own hands”, especially in areas where significant numbers of minority populations are turning out to vote. 

The prevailing view seems to be that the likely consequence of President Trump’s rhetoric, disseminated to tens of millions of Americans, on Tuesday was violence at the polls and tragedy on the horizon. 

Admittedly, while President Trump didn’t rush to correct his inflammatory statement, he did denounce white supremacy 2 days later in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. 

But, as most retraction go, it was to little avail and it may not be an entirely cynical view that that could have been the idea.  

Needless to say, the debates going forward could be dangerous, but it may not be more dangerous than cancelling them. One option brought up by many is that mics could be muted to limit interruptions and facilitate a more civil discourse. Indeed this seems to be something the Commission on Presidential Debates is considering. 

The problem, though, seems to stem from what President Trump was saying, rather than the fact that he was interrupting. So, perhaps the moderators need to double as live fact-checkers and mute candidate’s mics in order to adequately address every baseless claim that is thrown out from both sides. However, whether this would work is debatable. 

In a post-debate interview, Wallace addressed these suggestions by noting that, “if the president’s microphone had been shut, he still could have continued to interrupt”, and pointing out that the act of muting a Presidential candidate who has tens of millions of supporters could actually be more political and consequential than people think. 

Regardless of what “additional structure” may or may not be implemented, President Trump has said that he does not want to play by new rules. He made this clear in his tweeted response to the CPD’s statement regarding the changes they are considering adopting to facilitate “a more orderly discussion of the issues”. 

It seems unlikely that any moderator or any number of new rules could force an unwilling candidate to come to the table in good faith. 

Regardless, notwithstanding the President’s recent diagnosis with COVID-19 and his willingness to participate in a virtual town hall to comply with CDC guidelines, the debates will not be cancelled. Millions will tune in.

It is undoubtedly important to consider the impact each candidate has when appealing to an audience of this size. Their rhetoric has weight regardless of its impact on the outcome of the election. 

However, the crucial takeaway from the debate may not be whether or not the candidates should be muted or controlled in some other way, although that seems to be the prevailing conversation. 

The crucial takeaway may be that America is even debating how to moderate their two Presidential candidates; The men who are vying to be the commander-in-chief, to have access to the nuclear codes, to decide the direction America is going to take in the next 4 years. 

“Elections have consequences…”

Trump said at the start of Tuesday evening. This has never that been clearer.

Image: Public Domain via Wikipedia