US presidential debate changes little

US presidential debate changes little

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Donald Trump and Joe Biden participate in their first 2020 presidential campaign debate, Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., Sept. 29, 2020. (Reuters)

In 1858, in the (then) western state of Illinois, a remarkable political event occurred: Two of the most deep-thinking men in American politics took part in an electric series of debates, intellectually jousting over both the fate of slavery and the future course of the American republic itself.
The incumbent, Sen. Stephen Douglas, was a political giant of the 1850s, having advocated the policy of “popular sovereignty,” wherein local elections in the western territories, soon to be states, would allow the locals to decide whether they would enter the union as slave or free states. Local voting, Douglas confidently declared, would stop the poison of the controversy of slavery from killing the union. His lesser-known opponent, Abraham Lincoln, thought otherwise, declaring that the only safe course of action for the republic was for slavery to be outlawed in the territories and be allowed to gradually die out.
The two men agreed to air their views in a series of seven great debates around the state, taking turns as to who spoke first. The initial speaker would open for 60 minutes, the second would follow for 90, with the first speaker being allowed to conclude with a 30-minute rejoinder.
While Douglas was undeniably eloquent and won the immediate senatorial contest, it was the unknown Lincoln who emerged as the true winner of the debates. His soaring, passionate invocation of biblical scripture is what is remembered, both for what it said about the evil of slavery as well as the future of America itself. “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.” Lincoln’s passionate call for union and the evil slavery was doing to it made him a national figure overnight. In 1860, he got his revenge, defeating Douglas and becoming the greatest president America has ever had.
How sickeningly far we are, just now, from that shining moment in American political history. Tuesday’s first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden — surely the ugliest in the nation’s history — produced no winners; only American democracy itself was the loser.
While being largely devoid of substance, it was the sulfuric tone of the contest that was most off-putting. Determined to go on the offensive, the president, according to CBS News analysis, spoke over his challenger an endless 73 times, or about once every minute-and-a-half. Biden, in turn, was rattled, urging Trump to “shut up, man,” amid the chaos, noting: “It’s hard to get a word in with this clown.” In turn, Trump accused Biden’s troubled son, Hunter, of dubiously making money off the family name in both Ukraine and China, while Biden countered, saying the president was a liar and a racist. Suffice it to say, Lincoln-Douglas seemed an eternity away.
On the limited substance of the contest, over the 90 minutes, both sides scored some real points. Biden, playing his strongest card, accused the White House of mishandling the coronavirus crisis, as 200,000 Americans have already tragically died. Biden is surely hoping to remind the country of the importance of administrative competence. Trump countered fairly well, noting that the former vice president had been against his travel embargoes to Europe and China, which saved lives. Secondly, Biden accused the president of encouraging far-right supremacist groups, who the president couldn’t quite bring himself to condemn.

While being largely devoid of substance, it was the sulfuric tone of the contest that was most off-putting.

Dr. John C. Hulsman

Trump was strongest attacking Biden over the riots that have followed in the wake of civil rights protests in America this year, noting: “The top 10 cities are run by Democrats, and (in) many cases, the radical left. And they’ve got you wrapped around their finger, Joe.” Pinned down on law and order questions, Biden could not name a single police union that had endorsed him. Nor, in his affable if somewhat disengaged way, did Biden entirely dispel fears that his best days are behind him.
But, as ever, at its core, the debate was about Trump and nothing else. His supporters will view it through the lens that their hero was energetic, combative and strong, just as his detractors will have seen him as repellent, thuggish, and violating polite norms.
In other words, it is hard to see how this freak show changed much of anything. A Monmouth University poll on Monday showed that, while 75 percent of voters polled intended to watch the debate, only a minuscule 3 percent said it was very likely to affect their vote. The debate was largely sound and fury, signifying nothing; nothing that is, but the horrendous corrosion of the American political discourse.
But there was one tremendous danger that emerged from the contest — a threat to the republic that both Lincoln and Douglas would immediately recognize: If both major parties hate and denigrate each other so virulently that they simply cease to truly debate one another on the issues, as both sides did in faraway 1858, then America has lost something vital of what it stands for.

  • Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via
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