By James Molnar
In the wake of the first presidential debate, the Saint Mary’s community is left shocked and frankly bewildered about the state of the country. Many students express concerns about the chaotic nature of the debate, which was characterized by constant interruptions, frequent ad-hominem attacks, and substantial deviation from the intended debate format. Although it is commonly acknowledged that no distinct winner emerged from this anarchical spat, students report that there are certain respects in which one candidate had an edge. For instance, while there was a fair amount of interrupting all around, it is believed that President Trump took this to another level and that this demonstrated a lack of politeness and sportsmanship.
Democratic candidate Biden, however, made use of a variety of pejoratives, calling the president everything from a “clown” to “the worst president America has ever had.” This tactic, coupled with the use of informal and almost school-yard-like rejoinders such as “keep yapping” and “will you shut up, man?” led to an impression of unsophistication and in some cases volatility.
Many have also observed what one student called Trump’s “vigorous” persona on the stage. This affect has incurred both benefits and costs for the president. While it is widely acknowledged that Trump dominated Biden in the power struggle that raged between them, he came across to many as highly bombastic in the process. Although Biden certainly displayed aggression as well at certain parts in the debate, he generally assumed a comparatively passive role. While this did lead some to view him as being more self-controlled than the president, it also conveyed a sense of meekness.
As the candidates’ rhetorical strategies were generally perceived as highly disappointing, one might hope that some redemption could be found in the actual subject matter of the debate. This, however, would be a mistaken impression. As Tobin Shea, a senior at Saint Mary’s, points out, there was a distinct “lack of content discussed in the debate,” but instead "a lot of talking without saying much.” There were no logical explorations of the candidates’ political theories or discussions of the differences in their value structures. Instead, the two men hotly debated the veracity of basic facts, which could be ascertained using a Google search, such as the state of the economy in past years, and the salary of Biden’s son.
Despite the apparent vacuity of the debate, some believe that it revealed some deeper issues about the nature of our current democracy. As Professor Stephen Woolpert of the Saint Mary’s politics department notes, “It added to my sense of concern about the possibility that this election will create some kind of a constitutional crisis if either of the candidates feels they have grounds to challenge the legitimacy of the result.” As if this were not enough, it has been suggested that the debate itself represents a threat to the democratic process. Dr. Woolpert goes onto that say: “what really concerns me is that the people who watched it might be turned off to the whole idea of democratic politics,” as it was “so distasteful.”
While there was some variation in their assessments of debate, the students of Saint Mary’s appear uniform in their agreement that they would prefer a more civilized and rational discussion in the debates to come.
Melanie Moyer '22,