DISPATCHES FROM A PANDEMIC
It was a war of words that was heard around the world.
U.S. President Donald Trump and his opponent, the Democratic nominee for U.S. president, Joe Biden, faced off in a contentious presidential debate moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace on Tuesday evening in Cleveland, Ohio. It was, even by recent standards, a politically rancorous affair where the two men traded insults and was described as chaotic by many U.S. pundits.
In reaction to the 90-minute verbal tussle where the president spoke over Biden multiple times, and Biden closed his eyes on more than one occasion and took deep breaths to apparently maintain his cool, Sen. Mitt Romney (R., Utah) said: “It was not a Lincoln-Douglas debate, that’s for sure,” citing the debates of 1858 between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.
Others were far less diplomatic than that. Rep. Tim Ryan (D., Ohio), who attended Tuesday night’s debate in person, described the raucous exchanges between the two men as “the worst 90 minutes of my adult life.” In the New Yorker magazine, Benjamin Wallace-Wells said the debate did not end well. Others argued that it did not start well, and the middle wasn’t so great either.
‘By the end of the debate, I was none the wiser’
But what do overseas observers think? Daniel Carry, a senior policy adviser at the British Medical Association in London, stayed up until the small hours of Wednesday morning to watch the debate: “I thought finally we could put the Twitter barbs, silly name calling and outrageous claims about the merits of both candidates aside. By the end of the debate, I was none the wiser.”
“What passed for debate was an hour and a half of undignified barking,” he told MarketWatch, “with Wallace desperately struggling to keep a modicum of order on proceedings. I’m a political nerd, and have watched every debate since Gore v. Bush, but this did not resemble a presidential debate. It was more like a scene-stealing argument by the Real Housewives of Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Mimmo Loprete, a paramedic based in Milan, Italy, thought both men ultimately lost their message in the boisterousness. “Certainly Biden is better than Trump, but neither of them went into the merits of the most pressing issues,” he said. “It was a quarrel between them with mutual accusations, and they did not enter into the merits of specific issues of a political or economic nature.”
‘The challenge for Biden is not to look weak’
Marta Sanchez Villata, an energy lawyer in Madrid, Spain, believes Biden had a more difficult balancing act than Trump. “The challenge for Biden is not to look weak as a leader, but not to venture beyond the boundaries of political decency. Biden did well. He doesn’t exactly set your passions alight, but his strategy is based on his experience, reputation and solid background as politician.”
Biden, she contends, also showed media skills of his own to match those of Trump, a man that created a brand through his books and television deals that helped him beat Hillary Clinton in 2016. “Answering Trump without looking at him was smart. It excluded him, and allowed him to answer without getting stuck in the mud. He addressed the people as if Trump didn’t deserve to be there.
Sanchez Villata doesn’t believe Trump is a “clown,” as Biden referred to the president during Tuesday evening’s debate. Instead, she told MarketWatch, Trump’s strategy is to simply drown out Biden’s message. “Trump is performing the same show that brought him to the White House. He is giving some people feel frustrated with the economy a way out to their frustration,” she said.
‘People wanted to look away, but couldn’t’
Others felt sorry for America. Emmet Kelly, a Dublin-based digital data analyst described the verbal fisticuffs as “agonizing,” “exhausting” and “disappointing.” He said, “It is such a relief to be Irish right now. To be European and free to work around the world with a modicum of education and, relatively speaking, a vastly open mind emanating from a wonderfully diverse society.”
Margaret E. Ward, a Dublin-based communications consultant who grew up on Long Island, but has lived in Ireland for more than two decades, was aghast at the performance. “Irish people have told me it felt like a car crash,” she said. “People wanted to look away, but couldn’t. Others said it was like reliving your time with an abusive partner or boss.” And her take? “Embarrassing.”
Ward described the president’s unwillingness to condemn white supremacy as “horrifying.” Asked about white supremacists and other military groups, Trump name-checked a far-right group that has actually endorsed violence, saying, “Proud Boys — stand back and stand by.” The group took to social media and called the reference by the president “historic,” the New York Times reported.
Finn McRedmond, an Irish Times columnist, said it was hardly a good debate. “But ‘debate’ is a lofty term for what was essentially a glorified squabble between the two candidates. Amid the bickering, shouting and interrupting (President Donald Trump led the charge) it was impossible to make out any policy positions, and both candidates suffered.”
‘Trump probably did a better job at activating his base’
In her review of the debate in Wednesday’s paper, McRedmond said the two men lost their way in the increasingly acrimonious exchanges. “Joe Biden was at his best when talking directly to camera, uninterrupted, attempting to connect emotionally with the viewers,” she wrote. “Trump, then, was wise to deny Biden this opportunity, interrupting him at every turn.”
“The fear among Democrats was that Biden would make some kind of gaffe, or would appear confused and incoherent. The bar may have been low, but Biden cleared it. It seemed he was not fully prepared for how aggressive Trump would be at the outset, but as the evening went on Biden found his feet, and at moments was even deft at handling Trump’s persistent interruptions.”
However, McRedmond said, Trump was playing to only certain members of the audience. “Trump probably did a better job at activating his base than Biden. His combative style served him well in 2016. And, being scolded by the moderator for shouting over Biden will play well into the narrative that Trump is an outrider, under persistent attack from the so-called mainstream media.”
‘Trump is a force of nature on the debate stage’
Writing in The Daily Telegraph, a conservative British newspaper, Rosa Prince was critical of Biden. She wrote that the Democrats picked the “worst candidate” to debate Trump, who leveraged an intimidating persona to make “The Apprentice,” NBC’s reality TV show, a hit. “Trump is a force of nature on the debate stage and his scared and tired rival was blown away,” she wrote.
Her colleague, columnist Claire Cohen, had few compliments for either man: “Not that it would have been hard. In fact, let’s drop the word ‘debate’ straight away — this was more like watching two old men bickering over who gets to captain the retirement home bridge team. If I wanted to see elderly white guys shouting at one another on TV, I’d just watch Statler and Waldorf.”
In her review, entitled “Three 70-something men shouting at each other — what a terrible look for U.S. politics,” Cohen said the best line of the night — “Would you shut up, man?” — belonged to Biden. Ultimately, she said, it was a bad look for America: “Is this really the image the U.S. political system wants to project to the world — in the face of the pandemic, protests and recession?”