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Presidential Debate #1: The Squabbles of Capital

The first presidential debate, for all its drama and chaos, showed that there are actually very few political differences between the two candidates. While it is certainly alarming to watch Donald Trump continue his increasingly overt overtures to the far right, we must understand that it is the working class, not Joe Biden, that has the power to fight back against the far-right.

Sybil Davis

September 30, 2020
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Donald Trump (left) and Joe Biden (right) juxtaposed next to each other, each in the middle of speaking with their right hand raised. They are both wearing black suits with red ties.

The first presidential debate of the general election was a raucous affair, with Donald Trump playing the part of vaudeville villain to Joe Biden’s fumbling imitation of an Everyman. Trump was relentlessly antagonistic, attacking Biden for everything from his record to his grades in college to his son’s drug addiction, and attacking him politically from both the left and the right. However, all of their bickering disguised the fact that, on the issues, very little separates the two men. Both oppose defunding the police, the Green New Deal, and Medicare for All. Both support imperialism and are in a race to see who can be the toughest on China. Trump did distinguish himself by refusing to condemn white supremacists, but Biden, for his part, strongly defended the police. Although their rhetoric differs, both candidates are strong supporters of the racist state and the violence necessary to maintain it. 

Mere days after we hit one million deaths from Covid-19, neither candidate has any policies to actually combat the spread of the virus other than vague overtures about how we should have been more anti-China, or that individuals need to wear masks, or that we should bail out more big businesses. The truth of the matter is that Biden, Trump, and the entire undemocratic system of American “democracy” offer nothing for the working class except austerity, death, and misery.  

“You Just Lost the Left”

Trump’s strategy for the debate was to back Biden into a corner and use this position to control the debate. The most effective deployment of this strategy came near the beginning of the debate when Trump accused Biden of giving concessions to the “radical socialists” Bernie Sanders and AOC.  Biden fought back, rejecting universal healthcare. Trump triumphantly crowed, “you just lost the left.” 

Putting Biden in these positions helped establish both Trump’s control of the debate itself and the efficiency with which he is able to poke holes in Biden. As another example, when the subject of race was brought up, Trump expertly used Biden’s writing of the Crime Bill and his statements around it against him. It is, of course, hypocrisy in the highest degree for Donald Trump of all people to attack someone about race. After all, only a few minutes later he refused to tell white supremacists to stand down. However, the moment still stood out as a very clear and direct attack on Biden. While Biden struggled to find his footing, Trump was able to control the narrative and put Biden in several uncomfortable positions.

This ability comes both from — as the mainstream media was quick to point out — Trump’s utter shamelessness and lack of respect for the procedure of debates but also from his total lack of actual politics. He interrupted both Biden and moderator Chris Wallace all night in an attempt to show himself as a strongman. Whether or not that will work remains to be seen, but Trump, as a total opportunist, is able to tack left or right as needed in order to appeal to the voters he’s speaking to. In a single response to Biden on race, he attacked him from the left (on his support of the crime bill) and from the right (that he doesn’t support “law and order” enough).  

One area in which Trump was able to point to something true was in his characterization of the “recovery” of 2008. While Biden — like Clinton in 2016 — tried to insist that everything was sunshine and roses under Obama, Trump correctly criticized how slow the recovery was. The truth is that many never recovered from the 2008 crisis, as an entire generation was forced to take on precarious labor and millions of dollars of student debt. Biden and the Democrats’ insistence on pretending that the crisis was resolved is totally out of touch with the realities of the real economy under Obama. This current economic crisis is not new but, rather, a deepening of the unresolved crisis of 2008. Trump, of course, has no solutions to add to this analysis other than a continuation of capitalist domination. Trump is interested only in enriching himself and his capitalist cronies. As we’ve seen since the beginning of the crisis, the only solutions that any of the capitalists have is to force us to pay for their crisis. Trump and the Republicans gave billions in bailouts to big businesses while only leaving crumbs for the working class, and when those crumbs ran out, they have been dragging their feet to extend them. Trump is nothing if not a sworn enemy of the working class. 

“I am the Democratic Party”

Joe Biden spent the first debate trying to seem like the adult in the room. This took the form of trying to make emotional appeals to the “average voter” in the audience instead of getting down in the mud with Trump. This essentially meant that Trump was left to argue with the moderator, interrupt, and make a scene, with Biden standing aside. While Trump’s antics eventually made a refusal to engage impossible, the strategy is still interesting because it shows that Biden has made the political calculation to appeal to moderates who may agree with some of Trump’s politics but dislike his demeanor. The goal of appealing to the moderate suburban white voter that was seen at the DNC continued through the first debate.

This strategy led Biden to tack even more to the right than he has previously. He said complimentary things about Amy Coney-Barrett, Trump’s ultra-right religious extremist nominee for the Supreme Court, and said that he would support Trump if he won the election. In addition, Biden stated explicitly that he is in favor of private insurance and that he doesn’t support the Green New Deal. Biden even bragged about how he had to defeat the progressive wing of the Democratic party in order to become the nominee, going so far as to say “The party is me. Right now, I am the Democratic Party… I am the Democratic Party right now. The platform of the Democratic Party is what I, in fact, have approved of.”

With this proclamation, Biden makes explicit the theoretical and strategic bankruptcy of lesser evilism. He is totally uninterested in moving to the left, and as more and more leftists throw tactical support behind him, he is still only moving to the right. As the crisis deepens, whoever is elected to administer that capitalist state will have to unleash some of the most devastating austerity in generations. Biden isn’t even pretending that he won’t do this. He’s promising to continue private insurance, even as hundreds of thousands die of a virus, and he won’t even support the largely symbolic reforms of the Green New Deal. If elected, Biden will mean more of the same for working people except without any opposition on the streets, since much of the masses who have been protesting Trump are being led to support Biden. 

“Proud Boys… Stand By”

One of the most ominous parts of the debate was when Trump was called on by Wallace and Biden to condemn white supremacist militias. Trump hemmed and hawed and finally said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” This was immediately understood by many to be a clear message to the far-right to prepare to unleash violence if the election doesn’t go Trump’s way. This was only added to later on in the debate when Trump called for his supporters to be poll watchers. 

The history of poll watchers is, of course, one of racism and voter suppression. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan intimidated Black voters by flying over Black neighborhoods and dropping cards emblazoned with white hoods that read “do not attempt to vote” in Oklahoma City and congregated at polling places across Texas to “take careful note of polling procedure.” Even earlier, in 1871, Congress passed the “Second Enforcement Act,” better known as the KKK Act, to explicitly prohibit trying to prevent someone from voting via “force, intimidation, or threat.” In 1964, Operation Eagle Eye recruited poll watchers to question and intimidate minority voters in Arizona. More recently, members of various white supremacist groups plotted to “monitor” thousands of polling places during the 2016 election, and there were plans to hand out liquor and marijuana in predominantly-Black neighborhoods in hopes of tricking people into staying home.

Trump spent the debate — as he has spent much of the past few weeks — preparing to contest the election at every level. He has all but promised to dispute the election results, and last night on the debate stage he refused to promise to accept the results. Additionally, Trump is pushing through a Supreme Court Justice to contest the election in the courts, he’s sowing doubt about the validity of mail-in ballots to contest it in the press, he’s escalating voter suppression to contest it at the polls, and he’s asking his supporters to contest it in the streets. This will mean a likely escalation of violence from the far-right. As he has done for his entire tenure as a politician, Trump is sounding dog whistles to white supremacists. 

We must understand that the entire system of American “democracy” is a fraud. The system was designed by slave owners to defend their right to own human beings, and that system has put two out of the last three presidents in the White House after losing the popular vote. From the electoral college, to voter ID laws, to the Presidency itself, the U.S. is not — and never has been — democratic.  

We need to fight back this advance of the right and attacks on our democratic rights at every turn. But we won’t do it by voting for Joe Biden, who promises us oppression with a kinder face. Biden showed us who he was and what he stood for on Tuesday night, and we have to believe him. He offers us nothing, and we won’t protect ourselves by supporting him. We will do it by organizing the might of the working class to defend our interests and lives.

As the West Coast burns, we reach more than a million deaths from Covid-19, and the far right advances, radical action is needed to stop the crises. Biden and Trump will both only worsen the living conditions of the working class and the oppressed. We need to reject the dead-end of lesser evilism and organize now to fight back the right and defend ourselves. The presidential debate showed how little both candidates have to offer us. Despite their squabbles and theatrical blow-ups, Biden and Trump are on the same side: the side of capitalism. This will always put them into conflict with the working class, and we can’t ever expect them to do anything different. They offer us nothing, and we must reject them.

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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