Column: The unpresidential debate


Photo credit: History in HD from Unsplash, licensed for reuse

Donald Trump and Mike Pence take the stage at an event in Washington D.C. Trump was previously diagnosed with COVID-19 and therefore cancelled the second debate on Oct. 15.

By Charlotte Tragos, Columnist

Presidential debates are a staple in the run-up to an election, but there was something decidedly different about the first and so far only Donald Trump vs Joe Biden debate that took place Sept. 30 in Cleveland, Ohio. I couldn’t have described the debate better than Chief Washington Correspondent Jake Tapper who expressed to his viewers on CNN that he thought the debate was “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.” 

With 70 million people watching, both candidates had an opportunity to make their case to millions of potential and eligible voters with Trump especially needing to have a good night. During Trump’s first term, he has not only fueled the fires of racism but also failed to contain the spread of a deadly pandemic that has harmed our economy. Despite these colossal failures, and being down double digits in the polls nationally, Trump had the opportunity to redeem himself and win over undecided voters. We are a country eager for imperfect heroes seeking redemption.

However as this first debate continued, it was clear Trump was not seeking forgiveness for his actions or owning up to any of them. With multiple blunt and subtle insults hurled at Biden and Biden’s family combined with the constant interruption of moderator Chris Wallace, proved to amount to an unprofessional but most importantly unclear debate in a time when clarity on social and political issues is needed. 

To be fair to the man who is often described as a liar, I think Trump chose to stick to his brutally honest and filterless character rather than to mold into a typical politician. Maybe “I am what I am” is the most natural companion to “It is what it is” and so Trump, as always, simply decided to be himself. He showed up as the boorish outsider whose antics both shocked and charmed a nation looking for an atypical candidate to shake things up in 2016. His ugliness was seen more as a strength and less of a flaw because it dislodged him from the pedestal of elitist politics and made him appear transparent and raw, something that Americans craved. For a while, this disposition worked for him…until it didn’t, until Americans needed a president, not a reality TV star.

During the debate, Trump put on a show for his base aiming for his long-term supporters to embrace his performance. After a confusing RNC speech strung together with a lot of softball messaging about diversity, it must have been reassuring, and to some even cathartic, to watch Trump’s return as the unapologetic bruiser they voted for in 2016. I found his debate performance repulsive but unfortunately not surprising. Why should we be shocked that Trump didn’t play by the rules when not playing by the rules is part of his playbook? 

The reason 2020 is not 2016 is that now we all know why we need a serious, empathetic politician and human being as our president. Some of us understood that you need a careful mind to attend to the serious business of running a country. However, others who may not have considered the dangers when they originally cast their vote for Trump in 2016, have now experienced the downside of electing an unqualified candidate.

It’s hard to determine if presidential debates change people’s minds or persuade undecided voters to a respective side. But, if citizens’ minds weren’t yet made up, I think this debate cemented that Trump is indeed an incautious and uncaring person. Recklessness and unprofessionalism is not the right message or character for people who need reassurance in these hard times and the debate proved those qualities are what our current president embodies.