50 million Americans have already voted, and according to national polls, Joe Biden leads Donald Trump by about 10 percentage points and has held such a lead for weeks now. Although we’ve learned the hard way that polls should be taken with a pinch of salt, this implied that in order to get back in the race, Trump had to really ‘up his game’ during the final presidential debate that took place last night on Thursday 22 October. Here’s what went down last night and who was deemed the ‘winner’ of the debate.
If you remember what happened during the previous presidential debate, you’ll probably have a vague recollection of chaotic conversations and Trump’s constant interruptions. Tthe first debate went so badly that for this one, the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) had to introduce a new rule that would mute a candidate’s microphone while the other one was delivering a two-minute response to the opening question on each of the six debate topics.
Thankfully, this debate was a far more substantive encounter than Biden and Trump’s unpresidential face-off last month. Both candidates were more restrained, Trump largely abided by the rules, allowing Biden to speak uninterrupted and even complimenting the moderator Kristen Welker, who he spent the last week criticising. The same could be said about Biden—when Trump made a false claim about him, Biden simply looked up and stayed quiet.
The final debate opened on the topic of COVID-19, and Trump continued to downplay the severity of the public health crisis, defending his response and predicting that a vaccine was imminent, even though his own public health experts have said one would likely not be widely available to the American public until next summer.
“It will go away,” Trump said, adding “We’re rounding the corner.” In response, Biden opened his remarks by acknowledging the toll of the coronavirus pandemic and warned that the nation must prepare for “a dark winter.”
Biden said: “220,000 deaths. If you hear nothing else I say tonight, hear this. Anyone who is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States.”
At one point, Trump said Biden called his decision to impose COVID-19 related travel restrictions on China “xenophobic,” to which the Democrat shot back: “He is xenophobic, but not because he cut off access from China.”
Both candidates were also asked to speak directly to black and brown Americans about racism in the US. Biden admitted that institutional racism exists and that combating racial inequality would be a priority of his administration. Trump, instead of answering, decided to attack his opponent for playing a central role writing the 1994 crime bill that many experts and critics say laid the groundwork for mass incarceration that disproportionately affected black communities.
After announcing that it was too dark for him to see the audience in the room, Trump repeated a few times that he was the “least racist person in this room,” which seemed to fuel Biden’s answer. “This guy has a dog whistle about as big as a foghorn,” he said, accusing Trump of being “one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history” and a leader who intentionally “pours fuel on every single racist fire.”
Biden tried mentioning the Proud Boys incident, which had taken place during the previous debate, saying “Last time we were on stage, he says to the Poor Boys […],” mixing up the name of the Proud Boys with ‘Poor Boys’.
In an exchange on immigration, Trump attempted to defend his administration’s decision to separate thousands of immigrant families at the southern border, even after revelations that 545 children have still not been reunited with their parents after spending 2 years apart. Trump added that the White House was working on a plan to reunite the children and their parents but insisted the blame lay with the Obama administration, which enforced a record number of deportations.
Biden denied that the previous administration was responsible for Trump’s mistakes and described the situation as “criminal.” When pressed on why voters should trust him to deliver immigration reform when the Obama administration failed to deliver on this promise, Biden conceded: “we made a mistake. It took too long to get it right.”
The debate finished with a discussion on the topic of climate change. Biden mentioned the need to expand sources of renewable energy while disputing Trump’s claim that he intended to ban fracking, which he does not. What did Trump have to say about climate change and, apparently, wind turbines? “I know more about wind than you do. It’s extremely expensive. Kills all the birds.”
Citing recent revelations in the New York Times that showed Trump only paid $750 a year in federal income taxes while maintaining an undisclosed bank account in China, Biden asked Trump to “release your tax returns or stop talking about corruption.”
Trump, who has not yet released his tax returns, claimed his accountants told him that he had “prepaid tens of millions of dollars” in taxes. The president then repeatedly levelled unsubstantiated claims about the former vice-president’s son Hunter Biden. Biden defended his son and denied Trump’s accusations as he sought to turn the conversation back to policy.
“There’s a reason why he’s bringing up all this malarkey,” Biden said, speaking directly to the camera. “He doesn’t want to talk about the substantive issues. It’s not about his family and my family. It’s about your family.”
During this final debate, Trump spoke to his base while Biden spoke to the country. The former vice president gave a crisp performance—pushing aside a few stutters and the ‘Poor Boys’—somehow looking and sounding healthier than the man he stood beside. During the 2016 Republican primary, Trump’s dramatic media habits helped him. This year, he needed to communicate (and therefore reach) those who live outside of the Fox News Cinematic Universe, which he did not.
It seems as though Trump has completely given up trying to articulate a plan. During this final presidential debate, it was clear that the president had nothing to say, no agenda, no plan. Instead, he was purely reactive and gave Americans no vision for a second-term Trump presidency. Trump needed a big win and it looks like he didn’t get one—quite the contrary.