Politico

‘Worst presidential debate in history’: Foreigners recoil at Trump and Biden’s prime-time brawl


Foreign leaders and observers are expressing dismay at the spectacle of Tuesday night’s melee between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, with sound bites of the bitter recriminations reverberating around the globe.

The unrestrained format — which quickly descended into a series of extended brawls — is unfamiliar to viewers in most other countries, where serious political debates steeped in policy and firmly controlled by the moderator are the norm.

While global audiences tend to be skeptical of Trump, the global reaction to Tuesday’s debate goes deeper than commentary on one political figure or moment: Allies and foes, alike, are interpreting it as yet another sign of the decline in American democracy.

Even though most Chinese media ignored the debate, Hu Xijin, editor of China’s state-backed Global Times, tackled it head-on, tweeting that “such a chaos at the top of US politics reflects division, anxiety of US society and the accelerating loss of advantages of the US political system.”

Allies know that whoever wins the election in November, they will be dealing with a growing pile of shredded democratic norms. They are also keenly aware that under a Biden presidency, Trump’s power base will remain vocal in American institutions. In other words, Trump is not a problem for American allies only because of his erratic style and because he currently occupies the White House: he’s a problem because his base is set to remain intensely behind him, even if out of office.

“It was very depressing,” said Marietje Schaake, a Dutch former member of the European Parliament who now serves as international policy director at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center. After years of monitoring democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland, and leading the EU’s election observation mission in Kenya, Schaake had a warning: “The U.S. can go down a lot further, even if people think it’s already intense.”

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen took to Facebook to express her worries and ask for feedback from voters about how to soften public debate. ”Interruptions and arguments were allowed to fill way too much time,” wrote Frederiksen. “Fortunately, it’s not like that in Denmark.“

“Most Canadians are going to feel grateful that they live in this country,” said Don Abelson, an expert in Canada-U.S. relations at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.


The debate set foreign media outlets scrambling to decode Americans’ own, often colorful, denunciations of the debate. For Asahi Shimbun, a leading Japanese newspaper, the challenge was translating “shitshow.” Their answer: “a show that is like shit,“ part of an article headlined, “The worst debate ever.” Deutsche Welle, Germany’s public broadcaster for global audiences, felt the need to define “clusterfuck” as “a complex and utterly disordered and mismanaged situation: a muddled mess.”

The constant interruptions and Trump’s failure to condemn white supremacy were the themes that stood out most to foreign observers.

“The reluctance of the President to unequivocally condemn the Proud Boys and other far right militia should be considered a warning sign of where President Trump will look for support,” said Schaake, the Dutch politician and academic.

Foreign media also latched on to the chaotic format that allowed Trump to flout the debate rules, bulldozing over the former vice president and the moderator, while an apparently frustrated Biden labeled the leader of the free world a “clown,” a “racist,” and a liar.

Singapore’s Straits Times complained that “the barrage of interruptions meant that the two men could hardly engage with each other on substantive points, nor delve deep into policy discussions.” Brian Lilley, a columnist for the Toronto Sun, said that the toughest part of watching the debate was “keeping track of the actual topic they are supposed to be talking about.” But Lilley also described it as a “fascinating event.”

Millions of Australians got the chance to watch the debate live over their Wednesday lunch breaks, and they didn’t like what they saw. “Hope was mugged at the worst presidential debate in history,” Bruce Wolpe, a chief of staff to former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald. He described the event as “a horrible, disastrous, useless session that left viewers utterly disappointed.”

Maura Forrest contributed to this report.

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