And you thought the US presidential debate was boring?

Trump brings the gravitas of professional wrestling to a hallowed US tradition
Trump and Biden take part in the first US presidential debate at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 29, 2020. Photo: Reuters

"Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

-Attorney Joseph Welch to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings on June 9, 1954. McCarthy went on a notorious red-baiting, gay-baiting witch hunt in the 1950s, ruining many careers.


US President Donald Trump could give Caligula a run for his money. The deranged, violent Roman emperor had once made his donkey a consul, but Trump is no slouch when it comes to outrageous behaviour.

At the first presidential debate in Cleveland, he ripped apart all etiquette and civilised norms in one of the more hallowed quadrennial traditions of US politics: the US presidential debate. The debate between Trump and his Democratic opponent Joe Biden was like a train-wreck, awful to watch. 

US presidential debates are decorous, staid affairs—and something of a bore. Debaters are too cagey and apprehensive, like two boxers eyeing each other warily, reluctant to get into an actual fight.

I shall presently reflect upon this disaster of a debate, or the lack thereof, and how this affects the political horserace. But first, allow me to express my outrage.

Trump's shameless, unseemly bullying marks this debate as a shameful, historical landmark in US political history. I cannot remember a single political event in the past 50 years in the Western world remotely comparable to Trump's unpardonable behaviour.

After it was over, I rubbed my eyes and pinched myself. Whew! Did that really happen? Or did I slither down a rabbit hole like little Alice in Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" and crash into a surreal dystopian netherworld?

But that's just Trump being Trump. He has kicked off the guardrails of norms that protect and sustain US democratic institutions. From a callous disregard for Congress to using the White House as a political prop, Trump has sullied, defaced and devalued all that has come before him. Then there's his cringingly juvenile predawn tweets and constant, wearying mendacity. Unique among any Western democratic leaders, he has refused to pledge to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses. He continues to make unfounded claims of massive fraud of mail voting, undermining public trust in elections.

His debate strategy was about as subtle as a bazooka. The plan was to harangue Biden so relentlessly that he barely had a chance to speak.

The debate comes at a critical time of the US presidential campaign. Biden leads substantially in national polls and in most of the battleground states where the results will be decided. On top of that, Biden is doing well in several states which Trump won in 2016, thus enlarging the field and forcing the Trump campaign to spread itself thin. Early voting has already begun and there is no time to turn the tide.

Trump decided to go for broke because he figured what worked for him in 2016 ought to work for him in 2020.

The problem for Trump is that the political landscape has changed. There's no significant third party to siphon off support, and Biden is nowhere as reviled as Hillary Clinton was. His lead is also more solid.

The biggest challenge for Trump is the fact that he no longer has the, well, trump card that he did last time. In 2016, he was an outsider offering to shake up the system. This year he is an incumbent saddled with a global pandemic, an economic meltdown and nationwide social unrest. Surveys continue to show that voters are deeply dissatisfied with his handling of Covid-19.

Biden may benefit from the debate. Notwithstanding Trump's attempts to muzzle him during the debate, he stood his ground. He was often articulate, and no longer will Trump be able to call him senile and make it stick.

The whole idea of a debate with Trump is absurd. He is the classical carnival barker, hustling, promising wonderful things which, generally, have very little relationship with the truth.

The question is whether it will wash. One remarkable thing about this election season is how stable public opinion has been. The US is going through a global pandemic, economic meltdown and nationwide social unrest over racism, but you wouldn't be able to tell that by looking at polls during the year. The needle hasn't moved all that much.

That's bad news for Trump, because Biden has been comfortably ahead most of the time. Trump has to make something happen. Fast.

That awful thuggish performance during the debate was probably Trump's idea of a game changer.

Only the game may not change. Biden was quite adept at underlining critical points. One was that the threat to Obamacare will throw tens of millions of people out of health coverage. Trump's insistence that he had a plan rang hollow, as did his defence of his administration's handling of Covid-19. He made big promises of early vaccines, but again with no proof, as usual.

Pollsters say public concern about Obamacare and Covid-19 are hanging like a millstone around Trump's neck. For all his fireworks and bluster, it's not clear his remarks will convince sceptics.

At the end of the day, his performance was vintage Trump. It was loud, brash, flamboyant and crude. Here's a man who revels in tabloid glory and the faux glamour of being a celebrity who plays a tycoon on TV, not the other way around.

His strategy to hustle, paint the Democrats as the radical left, and generate enough racial fear backfired in 2018. Democrats swept into power in the US House.

He is trying the same strategy for November. Will it work? Trump's constant talk about mail voting fraud suggests even he is not sure.


Ashfaque Swapan is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a digital daily for South Asians in the United States.


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