Americans who have spent much of this year living between chaos and crisis came to Tuesday night’s debate looking for clarity, but were met with calamity and uncertainty.
During the 90-minute event, President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden crowded out talk of policy with personality and ego.
“We saw very little content about gender or marginalized people and a lot of masculine posturing,” said Occidental College political scientist Jennifer Piscopo. “It was very schoolyard and mostly from the side of the president, but they were both goading each other with performative masculinity.”
When they weren’t interrupting each other or name-calling, Biden and Trump largely hewed to their campaign trail talking points, though there were few complete answers from either candidate. Neither substantively discussed plans to address issues like a recession that disproportionately impacting Black women and Latinas; parents’ concerns about child care or education; how the elderly can safely and confidently cast their ballots; the epidemic of violence against transgender women; or the dual pandemics of systemic racism and COVID-19, both of which are taking an uneven and deadly toll on women and communities of color.
Biden referenced the 200,000 Americans who have died of the coronavirus this year, laying the death toll at Trump’s feet because of his response to the pandemic. But there was little discussion of the millions of Americans impacted by COVID-19, whether they ever get sick or not.
“I don’t even think anyone even said the words ‘essential worker,’” said Jess Morales Rocketto, executive director of the domestic workers’ advocacy group Care in Action.
“How is that possible? [Presidential] debates are an essential time to interrogate where people are trying to take our country and how they assess the country now,” she continued. “If there was ever an election where there was such a clear line to be drawn about how the president’s policies affect everyday people, this is it.”
On the issue of the national reckoning on race, and specifically systemic racism and policing — cast as “race and violence in our cities” — Trump was asked whether he would denounce white supremacists and militia groups, and say they need to stand down in cities where protests have emerged.
When pressed on the question, Trump responded: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” a reference to a far-right extremist group that has shown up in cities like Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin, amid the racial unrest this summer. The president then pivoted to criticism of left-wing extremist groups.
Biden said he supported law enforcement, but also peaceful protests, calling for reforms and unity.
Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza said Biden missed the chance to hammer the president on his seeming inability to criticize white supremacist groups or acknowledge the reality of systemic racism.
“He got baited into a conversation that is not ours,” said Garza. “I don’t agree with anything Donald Trump says, but tonight, he showed he’s going to fight for his base and the things they want. On the Democratic side, we deserved that and that is not what we got.”
Instead, voters heard Biden telling Trump to shut up and the president levying attacks against the former Vice President’s sons, Hunter and Beau. Trump questioned Biden’s intellect, and boasted about the size of his rallies while claiming that Biden couldn’t draw similar crowds, even in the middle of a pandemic. Moderator and Fox News host Chris Wallace could do little to maintain the bombast, often looking exasperated as he tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to regain control of the conversation.
Many took to social media to lament the chaos of the night and question whether future debates should go on. Biden’s campaign, fielding questions after the event, said he was “committing to attending the debates.”
The candidates are expected to face off two more times before Election Day, on October 15 and October 22, as early voting continues to expand to states across the country and millions of Americans are requesting mail-in ballots. The vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris is scheduled for October 7.