Anyone who saw the first presidential debate of 2020 knows one thing: that it was a dumpster fire wrapped in a hot mess. The debate, which is supposed to be a chance for the presidential candidates to engage in civil discourse about governing strategies and politics, achieved neither end: it was disrespectful and completely insubstantial. CNN admitted that it was “the worst debate in modern American history” (cnn.com).
Those who managed to get through the debate without turning off the TV were severely disappointed, as there was no respite from unprofessional behavior. The debate was marked by yelling from every party: President Donald Trump, Former Vice President Joe Biden, even Moderator Chris Wallace, who said at one point, “I hate to raise my voice, but why shouldn’t I be different than the two of you?”
The debate’s messiness was unlike any politics the nation has ever seen, yet strangely familiar to a nation who has, in the past two decades, grown up on reality TV. The debate was packed with enough bickering, side-eyes, and insults to outlast a season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians; certainly, Trump saying to Biden “don’t use the word smart because you’re not smart” was the equivalent of Kim telling Kourtney that she is “the least interesting to look at.”
Senior Mikaela Norum said, “The presidential debate really was like a reality TV show where each character, or in this case each candidate, was vying for the most screen time and they did anything they could to get that screen time even if it involved yelling at and talking over each other as toddlers do.”
Trump is a rule-breaking, belligerent, and inflammatory competitor. He regularly employs the age-old argumentative tactic of “if you can’t outsmart him, insult him” and through this, he is able to draw his opponent into quarrel after quarrel. This is absolutely perfect for reality TV, but would have had him dismissed from any debate team worth its stuffing in an instance. His antics shouldn’t have shocked anyone. Trump has treated the presidency as one big publicity stunt, forcing the US to pay strict (and often shocked) attention to his life and Twitter feed. If this is what the American people were expecting, perhaps it’s only fair to rate Trump and Biden’s performances based on their acting skills rather than their debating skills. So, how does the debate measure up as a reality show?
One of the mainstays of reality TV are the petty arguments that draw viewers in. After all, no one wants to watch actors get along with each other and be nice. People want to see gritty, dramatic arguments — that’s where the entertainment value is. The candidates did not disappoint in this aspect, with Biden shouting things like “Will you shut up, man?” and “You’re the worst President America has ever had.” Trump fired back with attacks on Biden’s family, which Biden refuted with vigor.
Yet, reality TV is only as strong as its main characters; dynamic and dramatic actors are a necessity to keep viewership up. If that’s the case, then the second debate would have significantly fewer viewers than the first (except it won’t, because few would pass up an opportunity to watch the candidates make a fool of themselves in public), because neither Trump nor Biden were particularly enlightening as they skirted around questions and instead found ways to admonish the other’s past political performance. They both refused to engage with the others’ subtle (and not-so-subtle) jabs for the most part, choosing instead to shake their heads and smirk. Despite its few explosive instances of biting argument, the debate was a largely bland cycle of Trump interrupting Biden during his speaking time, Wallace telling Trump to let Biden speak, and Trump grumbling under his breath in response.
While the debate was a political failure, for fans of reality TV, it certainly satisfies an itch. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s by no means a must-watch, unless one enjoys laughing at the President’s poor acting skills. And if Trump’s performance was the mark of a bad TV show, one can only hope it gets cut after the first season.