Trump can't keep getting away with it

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Before the next official debate arrives on Thursday 22nd October, we have a moment of stillness to reflect on the first 2020 US presidential debate and what, if anything, can be learned from it. The answer to this, ironically, has little to do with the candidates. Rather, the rules by which these debates play finds more of the spotlight than either of the participants or their policies.

What qualities should voters expect in a political debate? Certain words may lead the charge: civility, professionalism, respect. We expect the debate’s participants to sustain these qualities throughout the event, but whether they actually manage to do so is, well, up for debate by the audience members. What ought to be fixed and reliable, however, is the stage itself, the scaffolding hidden behind the curtains, and the fire extinguishers ready in the wings.

Metaphors aside: for a political debate to be useful to the electorate, therefore, it must be consistently regulated for the purpose of ‘fairness’. This means debate regulations ought to apply conditions to the verbal exchanges between the candidates in an effort to prevent one candidate’s means of communication from obstructing the other’s.

Candidates who interrupt others and whose speech runs beyond a time limit are instances of behaviour in a debate that regulation aims to clamp down on. Trivial though this all may sound, it is precisely the weak enforcement of these regulations on behalf of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) that has allowed the presidential debate to be widely understood as a glorified ‘shouting-match’.

The usual brushstrokes, naturally, paint the messy ordeal with Trump at the eye of the storm. The interjections, rising volumes against the debate’s moderator Chris Wallace, and monologues that outstayed their welcome weren’t exactly easy to miss. Many times, throughout the evening did Wallace look in vain to Biden for some kind of repose, overwhelmed by the realisation that he – the debate moderator – had no capacity to clear the runway for some of Biden’s remarks to be heard. Even Wallace’s scrambled attempt to pack up shop with “This is the end of the debate” was swiftly curtailed by Trump’s “I want an honest ballot count”, leaving viewers with both a confused finale and a fully-fledged migraine. But can I honestly relax into a picture of events that puts the knife totally in Trump’s hands? No – it’s not that easy.

The CPD’s noticeable inability to prevent Trump’s behaviour is too grievous a shortcoming for Trump himself to receive the sum total of the blame. At some point, the parent becomes responsible for the child. For this shortcoming, the CPD deserves criticism for reasons that relate to ‘practice’ and ‘principle’.

In practice, to put it bluntly, they could have seen this coming. The 2016 debates between Trump and Clinton, to no one’s retrospective surprise, unfolded in the same fashion and garnered the same review: ‘loud and uncivil’. Of course, we learned things (roughly speaking) about the two candidates’ policies, but only after hacking through the thick vines of false accusations, interruptions, and petty back-and-forths. The fact that Trump played the same game this year shouldn’t have lifted an eyebrow anywhere in the CPD.

In principle, a corporation jointly sponsored by both the Democrat and Republican parties for the specific purpose of holding and regulating their debates ought to have measures that act as a buffer against non-compliant participants anyway. An allowance of two minutes per candidate to a certain issue ought to be a sincere directive, not a ‘take it or leave it’ offer. The fact that Trump’s microphone wasn’t remotely muted, for example, after his fourth interruption of Biden’s defence of the origin of his son’s finances reveals a worrying face of indifference from the CPD when the debate begins to derail into total theatrics. Trump’s refusal to take part in the proposed ‘virtual debate’, originally planned for the 15th October, may, I believe, have been in part a decision made in fear of this possible measure being introduced.

Ahead of the second and final debate, the CPD have said that “additional structures” will be “added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues.” What these “additional structures” are, however, is still officially undisclosed. Yet, the damage has already been done. With 73 million viewers having watched the debate on TV and a high turnout of early voters, anyone would be hard pressed to suggest that the first debate ‘won’t make a difference’ to the way some US citizens decide to vote.

Four presidential debates featuring Trump’s cavalier attitude are now on record. Only now, on the fifth time round, is the CPD starting to consider the possibility of a lapse in responsibility on their end. Too little, too late.

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