Trump v Biden: How the first 2020 presidential debate was a masterclass in verbal abuse

Trump and Biden — Screenshot

Trigger warning: this article explores abuse and tactics abusers use

Last night millions of viewers from around the world streamed the first presidential debate between incumbent President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. The debate was just over 90 minutes fraught with shouting, disrespect and a hell of a lot of mansplaining. But more than that, Trump’s antics were a masterclass in verbal abuse.

Like many other expats, I set an alarm to wake up and watch the debate live. As I lay in bed, earbuds crammed in my ears, I felt sick to stomach, woeful and generally depressed at what was playing out before me. Seeking solace in social media after the fact, there was no shortage of memes and rants echoing my disbelief.

What was that?! A friend posted on her timeline.

I’m just so embarrassed! Came the chorus of posts from fellow expats.

Obama and McCain — Associated Press

My initial reaction was that the debate was a dumpster fire. But as I tried to drift off to sleep, something kept me awake. I recalled the presidential debates between Obama and McCain, recalled sitting in university English classes at UNCG, dissecting the rhetoric used in the debates. Appreciating the nuance of a well-executed response, taking notes on how each speaker used language and rhetoric to advance their agenda or to tactfully discredit their opponent. Those debates and every US presidential debate that preceded last night’s shitshow had an element of class, decorum and seriousness about them.

It wasn’t until I started replaying the debate in my mind, thinking over some of Trump’s standout responses that I recognised familiar territory: Trump’s language, mannerisms and bullish nature were abuse. The incumbent President of the United States verbally abused his debate opponent on an international platform.

Don’t roll your eyes. Don’t write this off as hyperbolic, left-wing fluff. Don’t chalk this up to being another moan by a snowflake liberal. This is fact.

According to, there are 11 hallmarks used to recognise verbal abuse and in the debate last night, Trump hit on an astounding seven of them. Here’s the full list:

  • Name-calling
  • Condescension
  • Criticism
  • Degradation
  • Manipulation
  • Blame
  • Accusations
  • Witholding or isolation
  • Gaslighting
  • Circular arguments
  • Threats

Trump relies on name-calling

Senator Elizabeth Warren — Associated Press

Though not directed at Biden, Trump spewed his usual racist epithets during the debate, notably calling Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas”, an ethnic dig Trump has relied on in the past to discredit Warren’s alleged indigenous heritage (read: Yes, Trump really dropped a racial slur on live television tonight) and referring to Covid-19 as the “China Plague”. Trump even managed a “Crooked Hillary” jib too.

Trump is condescending

There’s an awkward, cringeworthy moment in the debate when Trump denigrates Biden and accuses him of forgetting the name of his own college.

This is early on in the evening and, displaying a calm demeanour, Biden laughs it off. Ever the bully, Trump digs a little deeper and mocks and says:

President Donald J. Trump: (03:28)
Did you use the word smart? So you said you went to Delaware State, but you forgot the name of your college. You didn’t go to Delaware State. You graduated either the lowest or almost the lowest in your class. Don’t ever use the word smart with me. Don’t ever use that word.

Vice President Joe Biden: (03:44)
Oh, give me a break.

President Donald J. Trump: (03:44)
Because you know what? There’s nothing smart about you, Joe. 47 years you’ve done nothing.

Trump doles out unfair criticism

It’s difficult to pinpoint criticism in a debate because the very point of the presidential debate is for the opposition to criticise the actions of the incumbent president. However, Trump embarrassingly criticised Biden for nearly every issue argued about.

As referenced in the transcript above, Trump relied on a catchphrase of “Why didn’t you do it in 47 years, Joe,” implying that Biden’s entire political career has been spent letting issues slip through the cracks instead of tackling them head on. I don’t think there was a greater moment of pot-kettle-black in the entire evening than this shoddy tactic which screams deflection.

Trump is degrading

There have been many times when Trump has stepped too far past the mark but the most noticeable for me last night was when he harangued Biden over the actions of service of his children Hunter Biden and the late Beau Biden.

At this moment, we witness a shift in the even-keeled, soft automaton stance Biden projected. Provoked by the dishonour of his deceased son, Biden goes into full-blown mama bear mode and launches into defending our patriots and the military, complete with raised voice and pointed finger. Nearly shouting, Biden says:

And speaking of my son, the way you talk about the military, the way you talk about them being losers and being and just being suckers. My son was in Iraq. He spent a year there. He got the Brown Star. He got the Conspicuous Service Medal. He was not a loser. He was a Patriot and the people left behind there were heroes.

At this point, about 48 minutes into the debate, the conversation dissolves into a petulant back-and-forth spat. Trump further drags Hunter Biden’s name in the mud, continues to claim Hunter Biden was paid off by the mayor of Moscow and even stoops so low as to throw Hunter’s struggle with drug addiction in the face of Biden. The entire conversation had no place in a presidential debate.

Trump places blame

Trump isn’t entirely at fault for this next tactic. After moderator Chris Wallace poses an unfair question to Biden, Trump wastes no time jumping on the bandwagon and assigning blame to Biden, who rightly defends himself by reminding both gentlemen that he doesn’t currently hold office.

Here’s what occurred:

Chris Wallace: (39:04)
And I want to get to another subject, which is the issue of protests in many cities that have turned violent in Portland, Oregon, especially we had more than a 100 straight days of protests, which I think you would agree, you talk about peaceful protests. Many of those turned into riots. Mr. Vice-president you say that people who commit crimes should be held accountable. The question I have though is as the democratic nominee, and earlier tonight, you said that you are the Democratic Party right now, have you ever called the Democratic Mayor of Portland or the Democratic Governor of Oregon and said, “Hey, you got to stop this, bring in the National Guard, do whatever it takes, but you’d stop the days and months of violence in Portland.”

Vice President Joe Biden: (39:50)
I don’t hold public office. Now I am a former vice president. I’ve made it clear. I’ve made it clear in my public statements that the violence should be prosecuted. It should be prosecuted and anyone who committed it should be prosecuted.

Chris Wallace: (40:02)
But you’ve never called for the people…

President Donald J. Trump: (40:02)
He’s never done that.

Trump accuses Biden of things Biden wouldn’t have done if Biden were president

Confused? Yeah, me too. But this was a tactic that Trump relied on heavily in this debate. When he faced criticism from either Wallace or Biden about his actions, he tried to flip the switch and state what Biden wouldn’t have done had Biden been president at the time.

It’s quite a pathetic response that feels like the grown-up equivalent of “I know you are but what am I?” This accusatory, blame-shifting tactic is demonstrated beautifully in this less-than-coherent rant from the president regarding Covid-19:

President Donald J. Trump: (22:07)
You didn’t think we should have closed our country because you thought it was terrible. You wouldn’t have closed it for another two months. By my doing it early, in fact, Dr. Fauci said, “President Trump saved thousands of lives.” Many of your Democrat Governors said, “President Trump did a phenomenal job.” We worked with the Governor. Oh really, go take a look. The Governors said I did a phenomenal job. Most of them said that. In fact, people that would not be necessarily on my side said that, “President Trump did a phenomenal job.” We did. We got the gowns. We got the masks. We made the ventilators. You wouldn’t have made ventilators. And now we’re weeks away from a vaccine. We’re doing therapeutics already. Fewer people are dying when they get sick. Far fewer people are dying. We’ve done a great job.

Trump gaslights by downplaying white supremacy and vilifying Antifa

Allow me to set the scene: we are nearing the end of the debate, we have endured over an hour of cross talk, circular arguments, childish tactics and have achieved basically nothing. Chris Wallace brings the conversation to the stance of the Black Lives Matter movement and the issue with race in America. He asks, point blank, if Trump will condemn white supremacists and here is his historic refusal to do so:

Chris Wallace: (41:33)
You have repeatedly criticized the vice president for not specifically calling out Antifa and other left wing extremist groups. But are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia group and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland.

President Donald J. Trump: (41:57)
Sure, I’m will to do that.

Chris Wallace: (41:59)
Are you prepared specifically to do it.

President Donald J. Trump: (42:00)
I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing not from the right wing.

Chris Wallace: (42:04)
But what are you saying?

President Donald J. Trump: (42:06)
I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.

Chris Wallace: (42:08)
Well, do it, sir.

Vice President Joe Biden: (42:09)
Say it, do it say it.

President Donald J. Trump: (42:10)
What do you want to call them? Give me a name, give me a name, go ahead who do you want me to condemn.

Chris Wallace: (42:14)
White supremacist and right-wing militia.

President Donald J. Trump: (42:18)
Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right wing problem this is a left wing.

Proud Boys, stand back and stand by, the coward-in-chief says. Stand back and stand by.

Is it any wonder at various times throughout the debate we see Biden lose his decorum? For 98 minutes he was barraged, insulted, criticised and spoken over. His family was personally attacked. Every attempt he made to look down the barrel of the camera and connect with the American people was overshadowed by Trump’s antics. While Biden did stoop to his level occasionally, wouldn’t we all? And did he ever say anything all of us at home weren’t thinking?

SBS News

For me, the standout winner of the debate was Biden. Trump has done nothing but demonstrate his egotistical, hot-head manner. Even his debate prep partner, Republican mayor Chris Christie commented of Trump’s performance, “It was too hot.”

It was indeed too hot. It was too hot because it was abusive. Moving forward, the American people should demand for future debates with some ground rules: more tact and class, more focus on the issues at hand, and less about the candidate’s families.

The American people should demand a new system for silencing candidates who are speaking outside of their turn, switching off the mics, perhaps, during the two-minutes of uninterrupted response time each candidate has. The American people should also demand a moderator who will actually moderate the debate, who will speak up and enforce the rules.

Listen, friends, this year we all need to do our duty and vote. This is not the year for protest voting. This is not the year for not being bothered. Whether you vote by post, email or in-person, go vote. Make your voice heard. Go to

American in Britain • Confessionalist voice, exploring narrative essays, BAME topics, pop culture, parenthood, obesity, race, travel, literature and food.

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