Last week’s presidential town halls spotlight the frightening duality of America

By Emma Campbell

Opinion Editor

After President Donald Trump refused to participate in a virtual presidential debate following his COVID-19 diagnosis on Oct. 2, he and former Vice President Joe Biden held separate town halls on Oct. 15.

Town halls, which were established in Dorchester, Mass. in 1633, are a bedrock of America’s democratic system. They allow politicians to participate in free and open discussion with everyday voters.

“It’s the democratic process in its most amiable state: earnest Americans asking serious questions about the issues,” The New York Times wrote in 2004.

Though amiability is the time-honored state of American town halls, only one of the two main 2020 presidential candidates respected this tradition on Oct. 15. 

While both candidates were subjected to tough questioning from their respective moderators — NBC’s Savannah Guthrie for Trump and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos for Biden — the president was disproportionately hostile in his responses to the measured questions levelled at him by Guthrie.

“You always do this,” Trump said, interrupting Guthrie’s persistent questioning about his confusing stance on white supremacy. “You’ve done this to me and everybody…Are you listening? I denounce white supremacy. What’s your next question?”

Voters who tuned into Trump’s town hall saw a candidate who was whiney, desperate, and at times unhinged. Changing the channel to Biden’s town hall offered a stark contrast, allowing voters to slow pulses that had been quickened by Trump and Guthrie’s rapid parrying. The former vice president listened carefully to Stephanopoulos’s questions, responding calmly and thoroughly.

Biden wasn’t the perfect town hall guest. He dodged a few questions, especially those relating to his alleged plans to pack the Supreme Court and his much criticized radio interview with Charlamagne the God in May of this year, during which he said “I tell you if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.” He was occasionally contradictory, at once pledging to prioritize the environment while also promising not to ban fracking. But he was respectful and kind — two things that voters didn’t see that night from his opponent.

While Trump pandered to audience members, his treatment of Guthrie was infuriating, and not likely to win back the support of the middle-class women whose votes his campaign desperately needs to reclaim. He interrupted her with the same ruthlessness he showed Biden at the first presidential debate, ignored most of her questions, and at one point called her “cute.”

On the contrary, Biden’s town hall was serene. For all his pivots — which were far more graceful than Trump’s panicked hops from one topic to another — Biden conducted himself with his usual gentility.

Even members of Trump’s campaign team took note of the contrast in tone. Senior advisor to the Trump campaign Mercedes Schlapp compared Biden to the beloved children’s television personality Fred Rogers, tweeting that the former vice president’s town hall “feels like…an episode of Mister Rodgers Neighborhood.”

Rep. Eric Swalwell of California responded by commenting on the extreme duality of the candidates, tweeting, “America would rather have Mr. Rogers than Mr. Hyde.”

Biden’s cohesive performance was boring compared to Trump’s shouting match with Guthrie. But it was informative, consistent, and, most importantly, sincere. While Trump’s town hall gave voters a terrifying glimpse at four more years of rage and instability, Biden’s allowed Americans to hope for something saner. 

“I’m running as a proud Democrat, but I’m going to be an American President,” Biden said to the audience. “I’m going to take care of those who voted against me as well as those who voted for me. That’s what Presidents do.”

Featured Photo caption: Last week President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden participated in separate and simultaneous town halls in place of the second presidential debate. Photo Courtesy of NBC News.

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