Arvanitakis on American politics: The first debate…

| October 3, 2020

The first American Presidential debate – if we can call it that – was held on Tuesday evening. One strange thing about America is that it has a Commission on Presidential Debates but no independent electoral commission.

As a researcher, it is always interesting to sit back and observe the event in real time, watch the reactions and then ponder on the broader themes and underlying trends that we can observe. Here are four takeaways that many seemed to have missed in reviewing the debate and obsess over ‘who won’.

1. I am surprised about how many people were surprised

Donald Trump was elected as the President in large part due to his ‘outsider’ status. It was not only the fact that he was not a politician or from a political family, but it was in the way he spoke and acted. We should not forget the in Hilary Clinton was elected, four of the last five presidents would have been a Bush or Clinton.

Further, as I have written before, Americans across the political spectrum feel that ‘political correctness’ has gone too far – and for them, Trump was an antidote.

Trump’s Presidency has been one marked by ignoring convention. For many, including highly respected sources such as the Washington Post and The Atlantic, and many traditional Republicans, Trump’s behaviour is often described as ‘vulgar’. This, however, drives him and much of his base. The ‘deplorables’ badge is worn like a badge of honour.

As such, his actions during the first debate were simply keeping in line with past behaviour and many of his supporters would have been cheering him on.

2. Trump achieved what he wanted

Some felt that the President’s behaviours backfired but in many ways, it gave Trump what he wanted. He came across as very ‘alpha’ – a strong man – and many undecided voters would find this appealing.

Behind in the polls and facing bad press due to the New York Times investigation into his taxes, Trump wanted to change the discussion – and he has. The New York Times investigation attacked Trump’s core narrative that he is a brilliant strategist and entrepreneur highlighting the amount of money he has lost and his many bad business decisions.

Trump’s attack also made Biden look flustered and confused – continuing the Trump campaign’s other narrative that Biden is too old to be president. While Biden did recover as the Trump interruptions continued, so did the speed the speed of interjections.

On a particularly cynical note, these types of interjections inflamed Biden’s historical stutter: something the Trump campaign would have been aware of.

You may or may not like Trump, but in the few days since the debate, no one is talking tax, policy or about the 200,000 Covid19 related deaths – though it should be noted that as I was writing this, news broke that Trump has tested positive for Covid19.

3. America’s standing in the world continues to decline

David Wertime from Politico wrote, ‘China just won the debate’. Tuesday night’s presidential debate was discussed across China. The Chinese leadership did not have to find a way to undermine the “gleaming showcase of the virtues of American democracy”, simply show it for what it was: “a tiff between school children, one of whom was having a tantrum.”

Gordon H. Chang, a Stanford University historian of USA-China relations stated:

“If any spin-masters in Beijing needed material announcing the denouement of American governance, Donald Trump provided all they needed… What kind of system can elevate such infantile thuggery and incoherence to its national leadership?”

America’s traditional allies were also unnerved. Ulrich Speck, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin stated:

“Of course, the ultimate arbiter will be the American voter. But there is a consensus in Europe that this is getting out of hand, and this debate is an indicator of the bad shape of the American democracy.”

It is hard to imagine how American can re-capture global leadership in the short term – if at all. The beacon of democratic values continues to descend into two fighting factions with no end in sight. Optics count and for democracies generally, and America specifically, the debate did little to promote democratic decision-making.

4. Democracy is now a zero-sum game

Both the President and the challenger voiced concerns about the risk of violence during Tuesday night’s debate: Trump focused on left-wing political violence while Biden was concerned about the growing threat of right-wing violence.

Unfortunately, Politico has released research indicating they both may be right. Trends in public opinion provide strong evidence that Americans increasingly believe violence is justified if the other side wins. This growing acceptance of the possibility of violence is a bipartisan movement. Specifically, Politico notes:

“Among Americans who identify as Democrat or Republican, 1 in 3 now believe that violence could be justified to advance their parties’ political goals—a substantial increase over the last three years.”

Both sides are too busy pointing their fingers at the other to justify their stance with neither willing to concede. Where this all ends then, is anyone’s guess.