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U.S. Elections: Lessons from the First Debate

U.S. Elections: Lessons from the First Debate
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

There are two possible interpretations of the worst presidential debate in U.S. history. The viewers were quick to point out the first one. Donald Trump "lost", since he didn’t "win". At least 48% of Americans polled by CBS seem to think so. However 41% do think that Donald Trump won this first run, and 10% of them did not give an answer. What is interesting about these figures is how closely they correspond to the power balance between the two candidates, as reported by the polls before the undignified rat race we witnessed. So nothing has changed, the power landscape has remained the same.

Donald Trump's intention was to destroy his opponent, to expose his weaknesses, his supposed dotage and his contradictions. But mostly, the President destroyed himself. To all those who for nearly four years had been hoping that the presidency would transform him, that he would finally develop some gravitas, dignity and that seriousness that was so sorely lacking, last night was a cruel deception. This blend of Donald Trump might just be worse than the 2016 one.

It is not that Joe Biden has cleared away all and any doubt for his supporters. Far from it. He looks older than he really is, and to resist his opponent who was giving him both barrels, he too gave in to vulgarity, simplism and insults. Donald Trump did not make it easy to raise the standard of the debate. So Joe Biden did what his supporters expected him to do: he did not cave in.

Never since the Civil War has America been so fundamentally divided.

There is a second, more strategic and much more worrying interpretation of the first debate (should there be more after this masquerade?). There was a big loser last night: American democracy and, beyond that, the image of the United States in the world, if not the democratic model itself. America's spectacle of its divided self has been nothing short of catastrophic.

Never has the comparison between the decline of the United States and that of the Roman Empire felt more legitimate. By refusing to condemn white supremacists, (almost encouraging them to resist), the President of the United States was already calling for the denial of the possible outcome of the elections. He seemed to provoke Americans, as if telling them: "Most of you may want to vote against me, but you will see I won’t allow myself to be defeated. Do not count on me to concede defeat. We will not give in to it." Never since the Civil War has America been so fundamentally divided. But in the 1860s, America was far from being the leading power that it became and still remains (for how long?).

Its internal divisions were of little or secondary importance to the world balance. In 2020, it is clear that there is only one winner in the first presidential debate: authoritarian regimes, with China at the forefront. Xi Jinping is the only one to emerge victorious from this sad parody of democracy. It is as if America has set itself the ambition of legitimizing the criticisms that its main opponents make of it. At a time when America is letting its divisions get out of control and is potentially at risk of sinking into violence, if not civil war, China's shadow is spreading over the world. America's democratic allies must learn to live with an America that not only no longer protects them, but through its disorders and convulsions, is a perfect anti-model, if not a direct threat to its democratic institutions. After America, who’s next?




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