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Leiden scholars on the ‘bar-room brawl’ between Trump and Biden

Few have dared declare a winner of the debate between American president Donald Trump and his Democrat challenger Joe Biden. It was more about who was least worst. What do psychologist Willem van der Does, historian Andrew Gawthorpe and policy science scholar Brandon Zicha make of the debate?

A disgrace, chaos, mud-slinging, a bar-room brawl and a shit show even. This was the verdict of the Dutch and American media on the presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. They crossed swords in the run-up to the presidential elections on 3 November and were more bothered with each other than the topics at hand. Trump revelled in interrupting Biden, and moderator Chris Wallace from Fox News had his hands full trying to make sure Biden had time to speak. In the aftermath of the battle, the organisers have decided to introduce stricter rules for the remaining debates. The prevailing opinion is that the debate will have little effect on the polls.

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Willem van der Does, clinical psychologist. Van der Does already predicted Trump’s victory in the summer of 2016

‘There were two moments that could have made a difference. First: Biden showed up. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, twice advised him to stay away. Biden only did very limited campaigning until the debate. For the most part he was at home, practising reading prepared questions from a teleprompter. And even then he frequently fluffed his lines. This fuelled the opinion that he is much too old to be president, and is perhaps even going senile. In the debate Trump spent one-and-a-half hours incessantly trying to derail Biden. That Biden weathered this storm is his biggest gain.

‘Sccond: that moment when moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump to distance himself from white supremacists. He was served it on a plate. Trump could have pulled the rug from under Biden’s campaign, which is built on the fine-people hoax: Trump is supposed to have called the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville “fine people” in 2017, when he actually strongly criticised white supremacists at the time. Now all he said was a barely audible “Sure, I will do that,” followed by a tirade on left-wing protesters and an ode to law and order. It was a huge blunder to let this chance slip.

‘Some polls indicate that Trump will win more votes from black voters than other Republicans in the past, but Trump only focused on people whose vote he can already count on. He won’t have convinced undecided voters. The implicit message of his belligerent style is that he will defend the interests of America against countries such as China, Iran and Russia just as ferociously. But voters already know that Trump is ruthless. Trump could have expanded his base by finally adopting a more conciliatory tone. A missed opportunity. Thanks to Trump’s misconduct, Biden now has an excuse to skip the next debate even. No one would hold it against him – at least no one who is currently considering voting for him. What others think is by the bye. I think he is going to pull out.

‘Almost all polls predict a Biden victory, but I don’t think the war has been won yet. Trump’s supporters are much more fanatical. The support for Biden is above all anti-Trump, and some Trump voters don’t admit that they vote for him, not even in a poll. Voting is based on emotion, and facts and arguments mainly serve as rationalisation afterwards. That has become all the more clear in the past four years. Fear and anger are the main emotions that politicians play on. In some elections, they also play on hope, but that emotion was the poor relation in this debate.’

Interview with Van der Does on the American elections in 2016

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Andrew Gawthorpe, scholar of American history and commentator

‘Two moments crystallise the dangers currently facing the United States.

‘The first moment was when Joe Biden was talking about his son, Beau, a veteran who won a Bronze Star and then died of brain cancer some years later. Trump responded not by showing a shred of empathy, but by attacking Biden’s other son, Hunter, who has struggled with a drug addiction. In any other realm of life, this behaviour would be considered completely unacceptable. But for Trump, it is normal – this is how low he has brought his office.

‘The second moment is when Trump’s lack of respect for norms morphs into a constitutional emergency. This was when Trump made it clear that he is going to call the legitimacy of the election into question. He also suggested that he might call his supporters out into the streets to interfere with the voting process, which would lead to voter intimidation, chaos and likely violence.

‘Trump clearly lost this round of the debate. He is trailing badly in the polls, and he did absolutely nothing to offer voters something new or different in order to turn his situation around. He is incapable of changing who he is or executing some new strategy. He has always been a one-trick pony. That trick is no longer working, which is why he pours so much energy into calling the rules of the game into question. Perversely, Trump’s poor performance makes a constitutional emergency in the immediate aftermath of the election even more likely.

‘The time we are living through reminds me of no previous period in American history. Trump is a president who refuses to commit to a peaceful transfer of power and then comes to the debate not looking for a discussion, but to bludgeon his opponent with disinformation and bullying. He acts like he wants to be a dictator, or already thinks he is one. Now we have to ask ourselves if, on election day, he will also act like a dictator, and whether violence and constitutional crisis will result. In all of American history, we’ve never faced that question before. It is not a pretty one to contemplate.’

For more, follow Gawthorpe’s new podcast America Explained, launching on 7 October.

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Brandon Zicha is Assistant Professor of Policy Science at Leiden University College, specialising in Constitutional Political Economy and Agenda Setting in the Policy Process

‘I think that, like most viewers, the moment that stuck with me was when we were introduced to what constitutes an American presidential debate in terms of tone and manner today: constant rude interruption, heckling, attempting to moderate, insults… This was so profound because of how it illustrates how many informal political norms have been rendered totally inoperative. There hasn't been a debate like this in living memory.

‘I think that Biden weakly won the debate. In part Trump set him up for this win. Trump’s behaviour – constant interruption, insults, genuinely offensive comments – only made Biden look more nimble. I am trying to imagine holding my train of thought in lecture while being randomly insulted and heckled. I can’t: I get distracted when someone walks in the room late. I think many voters will get a similar signal on that issue. But Biden also didn’t really do anything that would challenge strong Republican voters to change sides.

‘While every presidential election is a combination of issues, perceived competence and aesthetics, style and identification with the candidates, this campaign seems to be about the last category. The content of the talking points of both Biden and Trump are totally predictable to anyone familiar with the Democrat and Republican Facebook and Twitter accounts. They are shopping “worldviews” to the undecided voter more than “topics”. In the minds of voters we see evidence that – when undistracted – they are concerned with fundamental “materialist” issues of health, wealth and prosperity, but these too are broad and unspecific.

‘We have good reason to believe that this is the most constitutionally fragile moment in American history since at least the Great Depression, but probably since 1860. We are observing a complete collapse of norms in government that have been largely stable since the end of the Second World War. It’s dizzying to remember that Dan Quayle’s candidacy was deeply threatened when he misspelled “potato” at a debate, and that questions about just how much of a war hero John Kerry was in Vietnam was sufficient to strongly contribute to his defeat against Bush in 2004. I will experience the next few months as a rolling constitutional crisis revealing deep divisions that have opened in society and could mortally threaten the American experiment.

‘As long as a sufficiently large group of people are willing to say “no, you may not transgress this formally unenforced rule and create potential costs for political elites”, those norms remain intact. Without these we are in a dangerous place indeed. That is why I think those that would be negatively affected by a major political crisis in the United States – and I am thinking of Europe here – cannot afford to look with much amusement at the shenanigans at the debate. Most citizens fail to realise how important the manner in which we treat each other, respect each other and live together matters for maintaining big things like the stability of our free societies, but it matters a great deal. It is particularly relevant now Trump’s government has substantially hobbled most of the “checks and balances” and other barriers to executive abuses. For this reason, as a resident of the Netherlands, I hope that people here think twice before importing American lines of analysis, rhetorical tropes and political movements uncritically. Perhaps American movements once had valuable resources to share with the free world, but I would not say that is the case now.’

Text: Corine Hendriks
Photo of Trump and Biden: ©ANP

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