Few and far between the cacophony of verbal spats and snide remarks, there were moments of bright spots when they actually discussed policy matters.

 

CHICAGO: There wasn’t anything presidential about this debate. Rather, it was an embarrassment all along. That being said, in a political climate where there aren’t many moderate undecided voters left to go after, it is unlikely that this debate will change any minds.

It was a debate between a “terminal narcissist and a literal dead person,” according to journalist and author Matt Taibbi. “One is malfunctioning, the other was born this way,” is how a friend described the two contestants running for the highest office in the US on his Facebook wall. By the time all of this was over, most of those 73 million who tuned in to watch the “debate”, were scratching their heads and scrambling for words to describe what they just saw. A sense of disbelief had gripped the American landscape.

It wasn’t that people were expecting a romantic opera on the stage of the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. The bar was set very low for this debate from the very outset, but nobody had expected the two septuagenarians to sink this low. It was like watching “people in their seventies behave like stick-your-tongue-out preschoolers on national TV while vying for the highest office,” tweeted human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

The tone for this acrimonious “tu-tu-main-main” (petty squabble of sorts, in Hindi) between the Republican President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, was set by the presidential demand of Biden’s drug and ear-plug test.

The strict Covid protocols meant that the two candidates had to stay away from even a ceremonial handshake. That, however, was well compensated as they came out swinging at each other. The gloves came off even before the two walked on the stage of a largely empty debate hall in the battleground state of Ohio. While on stage, they frequently interrupted and talked over each other as well as the moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News.

“Trump was his usual self, brash and pushy,” observed Deepa Bhaskaran, a Chicago suburbanite. Trump blasted Biden on lockdowns and said: “Let me shut you down for a second, Joe.” A gaffe-prone Biden, on the other hand, was remarkably calm and collected. To everybody’s surprise, he remained mostly coherent during the entire debate. “Biden’s demeanour looked fragile. But to his credit Biden did try to speak to the viewer,” added Bhaskaran. To his credit though, Biden did call Trump a “racist”, a “liar”, and a “clown”. He also asked Trump to “shut up” and commented that Trump keeps on “yapping”.

Despite his proclaimed desire to stay “invisible” and not “fact-check” candidates, moderator Wallace inserted himself into the debate on several occasions. His question on California wildfire and suggestion that it is entirely a climate change issue was one such example. Another example was Wallace’s repackaging of the much-maligned critical race theory as a simple racial sensitivity training. This prompted Nishant Limbachchia, another Chicago suburbanite watching the debate to pique: “Trump had to debate the moderator himself.” Mark Lavine, an author, lawyer, and radio personality was blunt in his criticism of Wallace. He tweeted: “The questions were asked from a left perspective (‘the science of climate change,’ what’s wrong with ‘critical race theory’ training, etc.) and Biden went unchallenged by the moderator far too often.”

Few and far between the cacophony of verbal spats and snide remarks, there were moments of bright spots when they actually discussed policy matters. Biden looked vulnerable on left-wing violence, rising crime in big US cities, and on the matter of mail-in ballots. Trump, on the other hand, seemed on the back-foot on the issues of race, Covid-19 response, and the economy.

Biden claimed that the radical leftist Antifa “is an idea, not an organisation” and his excuse for not condemning violence was that he doesn’t “hold public office now”. However, he showed no humility in declaring that he was the Democratic Party. His use of “Inshallah” lit up the social media sphere with praise on one hand and accusations of Islamo-pandering on the other. This is sure to make a dent in an already shaky relationship between the Democrats and the Indian-Americans. There has been considerable unease brewing in the relationship owing to the Democratic Party’s stand on Kashmir and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) issues. The Democrats, in a matter of months, have seen a significant erosion in their support among Indian-Americans, once a solid voting bloc of the party.

Biden also made reference to the discredited “Amazon rainforest is Earth’s lungs” notion.

Trump, on the other hand, was less than convincing in his rebuke of Proud Boys and other White supremacist groups. Disputing the New York Times (NYT) story on his tax returns, Trump retorted that he has paid “millions of dollars in income taxes”. The NYT story claims that Trump paid only $750 in federal income taxes in the years 2016 and 2017. When pressed for proof, all Trump could say is this: “You’ll see it as soon as its finished.” Trump also failed to present a case for his administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the economy in the wake of the lockdown.

For India watchers, the country was mentioned twice. In both cases, it was Trump who brought up India. He mentioned India with reference to the number of Covid cases. The other time, he was talking about climate change.

For so long the US has revelled in its claim of exceptionalism, but the debate night wasn’t anything to feel exceptional about. It seemed like an ordinarily mundane everyday event we see being played out all around us—people bickering, trolling, whining, complaining, calling each other names, etc. If after the debate one was left with an uneasy feeling about the degeneration in American political discourse, there is no need to be despondent. To be sure, there isn’t anything exceptional about this entire political process. Political mudslinging, like anywhere else in the world, has been part of the American electoral process dating back to at least the 1800 presidential race between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. What has remained mostly hidden behind the gaze of the public eyes so far was finally played out in front of 73 million pairs of eyes and astronomically amplified by social media.