The first presidential debate on September 29, 2020 started as a debacle and quickly fell from there into chaos. Trump heckled and interrupted both Biden and the moderator, Chris Wallace, effectively making the debate unintelligible. In the midst of the chaos, Trump double-down on his support for the far right calling for them to “monitor the election” and threatened greater possible violence in the future. In the immediate aftermath, Tempest Collective member, Ashley Smith, posted this reaction and called on the Left to begin preparations in the run-up to the election for a united defense of our democratic freedoms.
That wasn’t a debate. It was a spectacle that symbolized the degeneration of the political class that “leads” U.S. capitalism. Trump was completely responsible for the debacle. He wanted a professional wrestling match and got one. Knowing he is losing and badly so, he opted for a rabid dog strategy to throw Biden off his game by interrupting him with personal insults, a tirade of lies and distortions, and crass appeals to the GOP’s right-wing base.
Out of all of Trump’s unhinged rants, two were very important for us to note.
First, he called for “poll watchers” to harass people at the voting booth. Second, he not only refused to condemn white supremacists, he endorsed them by calling for the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” which the group has now adopted as their motto. Trump thus continued to green light the growth of far-right vigilantes and fascist militias, and brazenly positioned himself as the person capable of ordering them into action.
Biden on the other hand tried to position himself as the competent state leader in waiting capable of managing the multiple crises that have erupted under Trump’s mis-rule: from the pandemic to the recession, the uprising against police racism, and climate disasters. And this will be missed by people terrified of Trump: Biden tacked to the right, playing to the middle-class and centrist voters wavering between voting for him and Trump. He openly rejected the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and defunding the police, making a mockery of any claims made by those like Bernie Sanders that Biden has the potential to be the most progressive president in recent history.
Biden is what he is: an advocate of neoliberal capitalism and avowed opponent of socialism. The policies he has supported, and in some cases, written during his almost half century in the Senate and White House helped to create the conditions that led to the rise of Trumpism and the far right—massive class inequality, a ravaged welfare state, decaying infrastructure, intensified institutional oppression, and all the political frustration, anger, and despair that fester in those conditions. Trump and the Right offer reactionary solutions to these real problems in people’s lives. During the debates, Biden clearly distanced himself from any Left attempts to address those problems.
Biden’s election would thus not stop the rise of the Right because he is unwilling to challenge those conditions. And Trump, if he were to lose, would not slink off the stage of history, but rally the Right on the claim that a “socialist regime” stole the election, creating an even more right-wing, Tea Party-style movement with armed fascist elements in its midst. And if Trump manages to win—either by squeaking out a victory in the electoral college or by stealing it through legal challenges ratified by a rigged Supreme Court—he will lead an even more emboldened Right against the Left, unions, and oppressed people who will have no choice but to fight for their very lives.
All that said about Biden, he won the debate, not by doing anything, but just by weathering Trump’s barrage of attacks and not fainting. Trump most likely blew his chance to reverse the dynamic of the election and, if anything, made his defeat more likely. He did nothing to win over wavering centrist voters; they will tend toward Biden now more than ever.
But, and everyone on the Left should be clear about this, Trump is a danger to democratic rights. He openly called for his right-wing supporters to harass voters, threatened the integrity of the election by dismissing mail-in ballots, and revealed that his nomination of Barrett to the Supreme Court is designed to guarantee victory in the case of a legally contested election.
No matter your position on who to vote for, the Left must unite with the broadest forces around a defense of basic democratic rights. Resistance cannot be left to the Democratic Party. In 2000, when George W. Bush used the Supreme Court to overturn the popular election, the Democratic Party’s commitment to “maintaining the integrity of our political system” meant that again and again they refused to call on the people to challenge the Republican power grab.
We cannot trust them to fight. No one is coming to save us but ourselves. It is time to unite and fight in defense of our democratic rights.
We must demand that the Democrats block the nomination of Barrett, prepare mass actions in defense of the right to vote during early voting and on election day, and mass demonstrations and strikes in the event of Trump hijacking the election. Biden and the Democrats will not resist Trump without mass pressure from below.
Finally, in the middle of this struggle, the Left must seriously start talking about building a new socialist party as an alternative to both capitalist parties and leading struggles in communities, at workplaces, and in elections. No matter the outcome of the election, we will have to fight for what we want with demonstrations and strikes and we will have to fight the far right with mass direct action to drive them off the streets and protect what’s left of democracy in this country.
We want to hear what you think. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ashley Smith is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in Burlington, Vermont. He has written in numerous publications including Spectre, Truthout, Jacobin, New Politics, and many other online and print publications.