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The Final Debate: More of the Same With a Mute Button

Stripped of political theater, the final debate of the 2020 presidential election showed clearer than ever before that Donald Trump and Joe Biden want to present themselves as candidates of bourgeois “stability.” Though they differ in tactics, their responses showed that they share a vision of shoring up U.S. capitalist interests and revitalizing the decaying U.S. imperialist regime — and that they are more than willing to sacrifice the working class and oppressed across the world to do it.

Madeleine Freeman

October 23, 2020
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Photo: Chip Somodevilla

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The final presidential debate of the 2020 election was a bourgeois political dream. Across social media and the press, pundits and columnists lauded the new rules and restrictions put in place to keep the night from devolving into the political spectacle of the first presidential debate. The largely sober discussion between a restrained Trump and an ever-polite Biden was celebrated as the first “real debate” of the 2020 election. And to some extent, this was true. 

Rather than a standoff between the “Cheeto-in-Chief” and “Sleepy Joe,” what we saw on the debate stage was a policy exchange between two bourgeois candidates representing two bourgeois parties about how best to lead the United States in the interest of the bourgeoisie as it tries to regain its balance in the middle of a social, political, and economic crisis. Increasingly at odds with Republicans over the last few weeks, casting doubts about the party’s ability to hold onto the Senate in November, Trump was careful to toe the GOP party line, eschewing much — though not all — of his populist rhetoric. Biden was careful to position himself as far to the right as he could to distance himself from the more progressive elements in the Democratic Party in the hopes of holding onto his lead in the national polls and snagging more moderate voters.

But this should come as no surprise. In the last two weeks before an election that has both sides of the bipartisan regime on pins and needles, this was a debate about stability, returning to “normal” in the face of crises each candidate tried to blame on the other. Once again, Biden’s strategy was to turn the debate into a referendum on Trump’s presidency. But rather than be forced to go on the defensive, Trump responded by trying to turn the tables on Biden and put the Obama administration on trial. 

It was a close debate. Bourgeois political analysts are divided on who won, but much of the media is claiming the night for Biden. Even though Trump played by the rules last night, stripped of his usual bluster, he could not hit hard enough against Biden or defend his record successfully. For his part, Biden made himself out to be a man with a plan to get the country out of a crisis. However, Biden stumbled at key moments throughout the night, particularly when Trump went after his family’s business dealings and the Obama administration’s record on immigration; indeed, without steady ground on which to stand on these issues, Biden failed to fully recover. Ultimately, neither stood up to the scrutiny and neither showed that they have anything to offer the millions of working people who are suffering under the decaying U.S. regime. 

Friends of Wall Street

The debate began with the pandemic, with moderator Kristen Welker asking for each candidate’s plan to combat the next wave of coronavirus. Trump continued to downplay the severity of the virus , saying that people in the U.S. are “learning to live with it” and insisting that the country is “rounding the corner,” despite the fact that cases of coronavirus have risen 32% across the country in just the last two weeks. He instead tried to place the blame on China, once again making claims that he would make China “pay” for the coronavirus and promising a vaccine within weeks (despite all scientific evidence pointing to the contrary). 

Hitting the president at his weakest point, Biden went after Trump’s mishandling of the outbreak , from the president’s blatant science denial to his suppression of information about the severity of the pandemic. Biden tried to paint himself as the “responsible” choice — a president with a plan who could both keep surges in cases down while also keeping the economy thriving. Appealing to the advice of medical professionals, he suggested shutting down bars and gyms that see a surge in cases and giving schools funding to install ventilation systems. But herein lies the false choice that both candidates present. 

When it comes down to it, even though Biden may pay lip service to the severity of the pandemic and the effect it has had on working people, in reality his solution is to bargain slightly fewer deaths for a stable economy. Biden may have correctly accused Trump of being responsible for the over 223,000 deaths in the U.S., but when asked directly if he supported shutting down the economy if it meant saving lives, he avoided the question, saying that he wants to “shut down the virus, not the country.” Neither Biden nor Trump are willing to stop the pandemic if it means hurting capitalist profits.

Much the same was clear in the discussion of healthcare, which once again found Joe Biden shifting right when pushed by Trump. With millions of people swimming in medical debt, both candidates paid deference to the criminal health insurance system and denounced even the possibility of universal healthcare. Trump warned of Biden’s plans for “socialized medicine” and claimed that the Democratic Party nominee would be controlled by the radical agenda of progressives like AOC and Bernie Sanders once in office. But Biden was quick to clear the record, saying that Trump was “confused.” “I’m Joe Biden,” he said, distancing himself from Sanders, who has used his massive influence to campaign for Biden since he dropped out of the race. Far from making concessions to the left to secure votes, Biden made it clear that he is on the side of the insurance and pharmaceutical companies. 

Two Visions of U.S. Imperialism

Unlike the first presidential debate, both Trump and Biden spoke at length about foreign policy and the steps they would take to reinvigorate the U.S. imperialist project; both tried to appear as the candidate who would be toughest on foreign threats to U.S. hegemony and the most proactive in imposing U.S. imperialist interests abroad. Biden was on the offensive, accusing Trump of being too soft on foreign leaders. 

When asked about reports of Russian and Iranian interference in the 2020 elections, Trump said Russia and Iran’s meddling was evidence of their desire to get him out of office for fear of further restrictions and sanctions. Biden went even further, saying such interference was no less than an attack on “American sovereignty” for which these countries would be forced to pay — conveniently ignoring the long history of U.S. imperialist depositions of foreign leaders, including those undertaken under the Obama administration, such as the coup in Honduras in 2012 and OAS-led interference in Haiti in 2010.

You might be interested in: Imperialism Today: Toward “Systemic Chaos”?

On China, both Trump and Biden promised to be “tough” in its dealings with the country. While Trump claimed he was making China pay for the coronavirus pandemic, Biden claimed he would make China play by international rules and impose harsh restrictions. They presented opposite capitalist visions for how best to contain and compete with China , but at the end of the day they are just different ways of imposing U.S. imperialism. Whichever way you look at it, both policies — whether it’s “America first” or traditional multilateralism — means sanctions, troops, economic disruption, and disaster for the global working class. 

Who Built the Cages?

But perhaps at no other point during the debate were the two candidates more difficult to distinguish than on the question of immgiration. Welker prefaced her questions about immigration by referencing the breaking news that the parents of at least 545 of the thousands of children separated from their families at the border still could not be found. The brutality of this act is unspeakable — these children, some of them kept in cages for days during their detention, have effectively been torn from their parents indefinitely and maybe forever. 

True to form, Trump brushed these facts aside, falsely claiming that these children crossed without their families. He doubled down on his anti-immigrant rhetoric, blaming immigration for the pandemic and the economic crisis. Throughout his presidency, Trump’s rhetoric and policies have strengthened hate groups, empowered the paramilitary border patrol, and openly attacked immigrant communities. But his openly xenophobic distaste for the basic human rights of immigrants has also shined a spotlight on the U.S.’s racist and inhume immigration as a whole, under both Democrat and Republican administrations. When Biden accused Trump of throwing children into cages, Trump made what may have been the most astute attack of the night: “who built the cages?”

In a rare move, Biden sidestepped the question by saying that he did not agree with all of the immigration policies of the Obama administration. But that doesn’t hide the truth: Democrats and Republicans built those cages together — just as they built the border wall together, and just as they rain down bombs and sanctions on civilians together.

You might be interested in: The Democratic Party Doesn’t Care About Immigrants

“I’m the Least Racist Person in This Room” and Other Delusions

After his blatant calls to the extreme right in the last debate, Trump’s deference to white supremacy and his record on racial inequality were under scrutiny last night. While Republicans could certainly breathe a sigh of relief that this time around Trump didn’t openly side with the Proud Boys, Trump threw around a lot of empty rhetoric and skewed facts as evidence of his administration’s record on race. He even went so far as to claim that he has done “more for the African American community than any president, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln.”

Try as they might to expose each other, both candidates couldn’t help but expose their own completely disastrous records and policies on race. For his part, Biden floundered yet again when confronted with his role in the writing of the 1994 Crime Bill that is responsible for the incarceration and disenfranchisement of millions of people of color in the U.S.

The final minutes of the debate focused on the issue of climate change — highlighting just how (un)important this essential issue is to the capitalist class. Biden talked a good game about the urgency of climate change, but his policies, much like Trump’s, are nowhere near enough to save us from ecological disaster. With a new report showing that capitalist production could ruin the planet by 2050, there is no time to waste on “green capitalism” or gradual climate policies. The Paris Accords can’t save us now. But neither Trump nor Biden provide any solutions to climate change. Trump did nothing but declare his “love” for the environment and put forward new plans to cut already paltry environmental protections. Meanwhile Biden doubled down on his commitment to fracking and racking up capitalist profits in key sectors.

While lacking much of the bombast and theatrics of Trump and Biden’s previous faceoff, the last debate made it clearer than ever before that when it comes down to it, neither Trump nor Biden are a choice for the working class and oppressed. Though they may use different tactics, both showed that they are intent on reclaiming U.S. imperialist hegemony on the backs of the working class and oppressed around the world. Between these two candidates of capital, they have nothing to offer but more misery and insecurity in the face of a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic and a deepening global recession.

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Madeleine Freeman

Madeleine is a writer and video collaborator for Left Voice. She lives in New York.

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