Words by Ewan Vellinga
President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden confronted each other in a chaotic first presidential debate on Wednesday, during which they discussed topics including Covid-19, racial inequality and the economy.
Trump frequently interrupted, at one point prompting Biden to tell him to “just shut up man” as the two traded insults in what many are calling one of the most bitter and ill-tempered presidential debates in recent history.
Trump tried to dominate the conversation so as to put pressure on Biden, who generally rose to the occasion in a bid to quell concerns over his advancing age and his proficiency in public speaking, although neither side put on a particularly convincing performance.
The debate, moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, opened with a question on the Supreme Court. Trump defended his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett as a replacement for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, arguing that “we won the election, and therefore have the right to choose her.”
Biden took an opposing stance, stating that the nomination should wait until after the election. Moving the topic onto healthcare, he also warned that Barrett’s appointment could lead to the scrapping of Obamacare.
This was the first point at which Trump could level his claim that Biden was under the control of left-leaning Democrats, a point which he tried to emphasise throughout the debate. He claimed that Biden supports “socialist medicine” along with former Democratic presidential rival Bernie Sanders, to which Biden retorted “I beat Bernie Sanders. I am the Democratic Party now.”
The segment on the economy was largely overshadowed by recent revelations by The New York Times that President Trump only paid $750 in Federal Income Tax in 2016 and 2017. Trump claimed that he had paid “millions of dollars” before also defending his use of tax loopholes by stating that “any other private person, unless they’re stupid, they go through the laws and that’s what it is.”
The debate then moved on to one of the most pressing issues of the day as the segment on Covid-19 came up. Biden quickly criticised Trump for the way in which the crisis has been handled, pointing out that the U.S. has “4% of the world’s population [but] 20% of the deaths.”
President Trump defended his response to the pandemic, arguing that the data is not always clear for other countries, and that Biden would have done worse had he been in charge.
In one of the most talked about moments of the night, Trump was asked if he would condemn white supremacists. He initially said he would, but when asked by Biden to denounce the far-right group ‘Proud Boys’ he simply said that they should “stand back and stand by”, a comment that has been celebrated by the Proud Boys on social media. Trump also argued that the affiliation of anti-Fascists known as Antifa was also to blame for increasing levels of violence in the U.S.
The recent wildfires in California was also a source of disagreement between the two contestants, with Trump claiming that the main cause was not necessarily human-induced climate change, but forest management.
He also argued that Biden will damage the economy by trying to implement the Green New Deal, a point Biden refuted by pointing out that he is actually proposing the Biden Plan, and claiming that many jobs could be created via the switch to a green economy.
Towards the end of the debate Trump also brought up claims that Biden’s son Hunter Biden accepted $3.5 million from the Mayor of Moscow’s wife, and focused on Hunter Biden’s past drug use, as he was discharged from the navy in 2014 for taking cocaine.
Biden responded by refuting the claim that his son accepted the money, and by noting that “my son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem. He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it.”
In one of the final topics of the night, the two clashed on the issue of election integrity, with Trump claiming that mail-in-votes could lead to mass election fraud. When asked by Wallace if he would encourage his supporters to remain calm if the election was not fully decided on election day, Trump said “I’m encouraging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” whilst Biden stated that he would, and that he would accept the final result.
The polls suggest that Biden is currently in the lead, and has been comfortably this whole summer. However, the BBC notes that several studies from certain states suggest that the contest could be closer, with almost 1 in 10 Americans still undecided.
Most media outlets seem to agree that this debate will have little impact on the final vote, with most stating that neither Biden nor Trump really gained an edge, and the BBC noting that many commentators have said that the real loser of this debate was the American people.
The next debate will be between Vice-President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris on 7 October, before two more presidential debates on 15 October and 22 October. They all take place from 21:00-22:30 OET (02:00-03:00 BST).