“Bad things happen in Philadelphia. Bad things.”

“The Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by.”

“I wear a mask when needed… I don’t wear masks like him. Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”

The first presidential debate was, quite frankly, a hot mess. 

From Donald Trump’s contested Wharton degree to Joe Biden’s honorary professorship, a presidential election has never been so intertwined with Penn. Yet with last week’s frenzied “debate,” it’s not entirely clear whether this association is something to be flaunted. With a majority of watchers feeling “annoyed” at best, this 90–minute exchange seemed anything but presidential and could barely be seen as a “debate.”

As a member of Penn Debate Society (PDS), you win a debate by setting up “a certain logical framework and walking the judge through all the logical consequences of that framework,” Isabella Rocco (C ’23) explained. “You win by showing the different impacts and weighing the importance of different issues, and really making sure that the different points brought up in the debate ultimately interact with another.”

With these guidelines in mind, both Trump and Biden’s displays at the debate were unimpressive. 

“It was quite dismal,” Kayla Holloway (C ‘24) said, stifling a laugh when asked to grade Trump’s performance. “I mean, the highest I could probably go is a D-, and that’s only if we’re considering the performative aspect. I think that to some degree debating is performative and he definitely did perform.”

“I would probably give Biden about a C,” Kayla continued. “He had better composure than Trump, didn’t resort to any type of direct attack on character... There wasn’t much attempt to put the debate back in focus. And also because he didn’t engage with Trump on a lot of the senseless commentary that he made, it kind of just made it not really a debate.”

Isabella held similar sentiments. “I would say that by our standards in the League, I think that both of them would fail... the goals are not ‘let me win this debate argumentatively.’ It’s ‘let me get the people to like me’... Sometimes that’s achieved through logical argumentation and sometimes that’s achieved emotionally, and so that’s definitely a dynamic that has really degraded the level of debate on the national stage.”

However, logic isn’t the only important thing in debate. According to Isabella, it places an emphasis on respect and civility as well. 

“You leave the debate. You shake hands. You hang out with them afterward, and it doesn’t matter if you guys were debating completely opposite sides. There’s mutual respect because that’s the respect we show in rounds.”

The lack of civility in this current election is alarming and discouraging. Both Kayla and Isabella expressed their concerns and fears about the future of America, seeing this debate as the epitome of what’s wrong with contemporary politics.

“Discussions [like these debates] don’t seem to be changing hearts and minds. [They’re] just kind of emboldening the most radical people in our political system. And I really hope that there is room for more civility in our politics in the future.”

The highest stakes debate in America completely lacks the logic and civility that characterizes debate. From Trump’s silence on white supremacy to his encouragement of voter intimidation, it seems clear that his radical supporters feel reaffirmed by his words. This debate encapsulates the sneaky erosion of democracy, cloaked with bombastic performances and “memeable,” incoherent language. Rather than changing the minds of undecided voters, this debate only serves to further hatred and polarization in America.