The first of three scheduled presidential debates between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden occurred on Tuesday evening (September 29) and can only be described as chaotic, cringeworthy and a hot mess. At times the 90-minute sniping match resembled an incoherent comedy skit complete with strategically placed dog whistles. The conversation eventually turned to the serious topic of race and social unrest, the two issues that have ravaged the U.S. for much of 2020.
About 36 minutes into the debate, moderator and Fox Sunday News anchor Chris Wallace, asked the candidates why they should be trusted to deal with the nation’s racial issues. Biden remarked that the 2017 incident in Charlottesville, Va., that cost the life of Heather Heyer, is what moved him to run for president, after which he pointed out Trump’s infamous response to the “Unite The Right” attack on protesters when he said there were “good people on both sides.”
“This man is a savior of African-Americans?” questioned Biden.
This response sparked a litany of racial rhetoric used by Trump throughout the debate. Trump began by reiterating the attack he used on former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign, reminding voters of the “superpredator” comment she made in 1996 in reference to the 1994 Crime Bill. It’s the same bill that Biden sponsored as a Delaware senator. Biden never used the term, although Trump erroneously said he did.
The debate bounced around to several areas including Trump’s continuous claim that he’s done more for Black people than any president since Abraham Lincoln; Biden, however, simply had to acknowledge the systemic injustices that still exist when it comes to race in America in education, the workplace and law enforcement to show Trump’s impact on the Black community. Trump responded by saying he would have forcefully brought violent protests in cities like Portland, Oregon to an end. But Wallace managed to bring the topic back specifically to race.
There was a question asked of the President as to why his administration ended federal racial sensitivity training that studied critical race theory and whether or not he believes there is still systemic racism in the country. His answer was only to call the training racist and unfair and that it was “teaching people to hate our country.”
Biden, however, replied that sensitivity training was necessary, and people should be “made aware” of the issues the training like this can surface. Instead of then answering the question about systemic racism, Trump took the opportunity to chide Biden about whether he believed in “law and order,” and the lack thereof he blames on Democratic-run cities that have incidents of increased violence over the last few months.
“If he ever got to run this country,” Trump said, “and they ran it the way he would want to run it , our suburbs would be gone…” But Biden quipped “all these dog whistles aren’t working anymore.”
Biden remarked that he is opposed to defunding police departments, in the way demonstrators have called for, but said there’s a need for more community policing. He maintained that violent demonstrators should be prosecuted and said that Trump keeps “pouring gasoline on the fire.”
“You have repeatedly criticized the vice president for not specifically calling out ANTIFA and other left-wing extremist groups,” said Wallace. “But are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacist and militia groups and to say they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Portland and as we saw in Kenosha.”
Trump took three seconds to send a clear message to Proud Boys groups across the country saying, “stand down and stand by,” to which some on social media took as a sign to wait for further orders to incite the violence they are known to instigate.
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In the past, Trump has gone out of his way to talk about all that he has accomplished for African Americans including what he says is a low unemployment rate, funding for HBCUs and the First Step Act, which has been his hallmark criminal justice policy. But the Tuesday debate was marked with a failure to outright rebuke white supremacists and comment on systemic racism. Instead, he used the opportunity to accuse Biden of ignoring calls for law and order.
“There’s never been an administration that has done what I’ve done,” said Trump of his record.
Clawing through the shouting, insults, and dog whistle remarks, tonight’s clear winner has to be Biden if only for the sheer fact that he spoke directly to the American public. Addressing voters with statements like, “I don’t trust him at all, nor do you, I know you don’t” just might have been the calmest and most insightful moment of the evening and one that will likely be the most relatable to Black voters.
(Photos from left: Win McNamee/Getty Images; Morry Gash-Pool/Getty Images)