//President Donald Trump and Vice President Joseph Biden on stage for the first debate of the 2020 presidential election on Sept. 29.
President Donald Trump and Vice President Joseph Biden Jr. met for the first of three presidential debates tonight in Cleveland with veteran moderator Chris Wallace, from Fox News.
While news sources question who won the debate, what was clear was the contentious tone of the evening. Trump and Biden both interrupted and insulted one another and Wallace. However, the tone was set by Trump who Wallace repeatedly asked to stop cross-talking.
Wallace began the night with questions regarding Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to fill the seat of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Biden expressed concern that whoever is confirmed as the next justice will decide the future of the Affordable Care Act and abortion.
Throughout his campaign, Biden has emphasized his work on the ACA with President Obama. Tonight, that talking point carried extra weight due to COVID-19 survivors now being designated as having a pre-existing condition. Biden pointed out that without the ACA’s ban on denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, those who have survived COVID-19 could lose their insurance.
While Trump has repeatedly vowed to repeal the ACA and continued to do so tonight, he has yet to propose a replacement to the plan that currently insures twenty million Americans. Trump responded to Wallace’s push on his healthcare plan by stating that he’s supposedly lowered prescription drug prices and thrown out the individual mandate that was a major piece of the ACA.
COVID-19’s continued effects on the economy became a talking point both candidates revisited throughout the debate. According to Wallace, the Federal Reserve recently announced that the economy’s second-quarter took less of a hit than originally expected. Trump took this statement as support of his push to reopen early.
Biden pushed for disbursement of personal protective equipment and an increase in sanitizing measures in order to keep businesses open. He went on to emphasize the importance of continuous and sustained mask usage.
When called out by Biden as using dog-whistle politics Trump pointed to Biden’s work on the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 that continued the expansion of mandatory minimums. One of the most notable moments of the night came when Trump once again refused to condemn white supremacist groups that have shown continued support for him since 2016.
Wallace asked Trump, “Are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down?” Trump skirted the question and doubled-down on his rhetoric about the left as the source of violent riots over the last several months.
The moderator pushed back, with Trump replying “What do you want me to call them? Give me a name.” Biden then chimed in with “Proud Boys,” referring to a far-right group that has gained notoriety for their involvement in protests in Portland and other cities.
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump said.
Many online saw Trump’s words as a sort of endorsement for the far-right group. Shortly after, members of the Proud Boys were celebrating what they called a shout-out from President Trump and began using his words as their official Telegram profile photo.
The escalation continued when Trump mirrored his earlier statement that he will not guarantee a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election. He also again called into question the validity of mail-in ballots, saying that those that are sent “unsolicited” are bound to be a source of fraud.
“He’s trying to scare people into thinking that it’s not going to be legitimate,” Biden said of Trump. “Show up and vote. You will determine the outcome of this election.”
“This is not going to end well,” Trump said in response. “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen.”
As the night went on and discussion of mail-in ballots took center stage, the three men spoke over one another, at times leaving all voices unrecognizable. The discourse that colored the exchange, and the night overall, was unprecedented in American history, calling commentators to declare the loser of the debate to be the American people.
Despite the combative tone that overshadowed the debate it wasn’t until the end when the discussion crossed a bridge too far. Trump broke with long-standing unspoken rules of decorum by bringing up Biden’s son Hunter’s addiction.
“My son had a drug problem, but he’s [overcome] it and I’m proud of him,” Biden said in response to Trump’s attacks.
This debate might be the last time that some voters see both men together. There have been calls on Twitter and by several opinion writers to cancel the remaining two debates due to the “shit show” nature of the first. At least for now, the presidential candidates will meet again on Oct. 15th and Oct. 22nd. The next debate is between vice presidential candidates Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, scheduled for October 7th.
During the last election cycle, the first debate between President Trump and Hilary Clinton had the largest viewership in history. Viewership steadily decreased in the remaining debates, following a general historical trend.
Overall, the night was a reflection of the tumultuous state of the country—several people speaking at once, often to no avail, an election looming overhead and a yet to be decided winner.