‘How did America reach this level of political decline?’: Foreign observers shake heads at debate

President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden
President Trump, left, and former Vice President Joe Biden, who faced off Tuesday during the first presidential debate.
(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)
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“Chaos, interruptions, personal attacks and insults,” one outspoken Chinese newspaper editor said of the U.S. presidential debate. An Australian counterpart described it as “swamped” by the “rancor engulfing America.” The BBC, perhaps with characteristic British understatement, called it “one of the most chaotic and bitter White House debates in years.”

Interest ran high because of the debate’s potential impact on what may be the most consequential U.S. election in years, now a little more than a month away. But the first faceoff between President Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden was not a highlight of political oratory in the eyes of many overseas.

The editor-at-large of the newspaper the Australian, Paul Kelly, described the debate as a “spiteful, chaotic, abusive, often out-of-control brawling encounter with both candidates revealing their contempt for each other.”


“The rancor engulfing America swamped the first Trump-Biden debate,” Kelly wrote, adding: “America faces a dangerous several weeks.”

Europe and Africa woke up to reports about Tuesday night’s showdown.

“The comments I’ve seen from various European press [are] basically: ‘I’m happy I’m not an American voter this year.’ It’s just a mess,” said Jussi Hanhimaki, a Finnish Swiss professor of International History at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.

“That’s all extremely disturbing for many Europeans, who generally would think the United States would be a symbol of democracy ... that has this long, long tradition of, yes, very acrimonious debate, but there’s always been a winner and a peaceful transfer of power,” he said.

President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden faced off in Cleveland in their first presidential debate.

Sept. 29, 2020

Quipped Kenyan commentator Patrick Gathara on Twitter: “This debate would be sheer comedy if it wasn’t such a pitiful and tragic advertisement for U.S. dysfunction.”

On Facebook, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen wrote: “An election debate in the States last night, where interruptions and quarrels were allowed to fill up way too much. Fortunately, this is not the case in Denmark. And I never hope it will be like that. The harsh words polarize and split.”

Walter Veltroni, a columnist for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera and a former center-left mayor of Rome, said he had seen all the televised U.S. presidential debates since the Kennedy-Nixon faceoffs in 1960, but “I have never witnessed a spectacle similar to the one last night.”


He said the debate showed how there are two Americas that appear irreconcilable.

“The impression is that of a country in stalemate, paralyzed by politics and tones that are foreign to its tradition,” Veltroni said.

Hu Xijin, editor of China’s nationalistic Communist Party tabloid Global Times, offered his opinion on the newspaper’s official microblog, writing that the “chaos, interruptions, personal attacks and insults” on display were a reflection of America’s “overarching division, anxiety and the accelerating erosion of the system’s original advantages.”

“I used to admire this kind of televised debate in American politics, but I have much more mixed feelings when [I] watch it again now,” wrote Hu, who personally and through his paper routinely attacks American policies. “Indeed, the overall image of the United States is growing more and more complicated in my eyes.”

Trump has tried for a year to find an attack that would throw Biden off stride. So far, none has done the job. At the debate, he just repeated them.

Sept. 30, 2020

Tim Wilson, a lawmaker in Australia’s conservative government, was frustrated by the debate’s lack of policy focus.

“I thought it was pretty unedifying in terms of a discussion, not just about the future of America, but ultimately because of the might of the United States, about the rest of the world as well,” Wilson told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Amanda Rishworth, a lawmaker in Australia’s center-left Labor Party, said: “A lot of people would be scratching their heads, especially here from Australia, where, believe it or not, our politics is a little bit more gentle than the U.S. of A.”


Foreign policy issues were largely absent from the debate, although Trump slung accusations that China had paid Biden’s son Hunter for consulting work and Biden attacked Trump’s trade deals with China for failing to deliver benefits.

President Trump repeatedly interrupted Joe Biden and moderator Chris Wallace in the first 2020 presidential debate. We analyzed the debate, round by round.

Sept. 29, 2020

Trump also repeatedly blamed China for the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 1 million people globally and laid waste to economies in the U.S. and other nations. Trump also said he reduced the threat to the U.S. by banning travel from China, although in fact he only restricted travel.

In the Middle East, the debate raised eyebrows when Biden at one point said “inshallah” as Trump hedged on saying when he would release his tax returns. “Inshallah” in Arabic means “God willing.” It also can be used in a way to suggest that something won’t ever happen.

Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned satellite news channel based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and the National, a state-linked newspaper in the Emirates’ capital, Abu Dhabi, both published articles noting Biden’s use of the word.

An Emirati political scientist, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, wrote on Twitter that he saw the debate as a “tumultuous verbal battle.”

“How did America reach this level of political decline?” he wrote.

Other observers looked for possible impact on financial markets and currencies, although the reaction was muted overall. Share prices slipped further in Japan, and the dollar weakened against the Japanese yen and the euro, while U.S. futures were lower, auguring a weak opening on Wall Street.


“Markets have remained calm as no policy surprises have emerged from the debate,” said Jeffrey Halley, a senior market analyst at Oanda. “My initial thoughts are the debate will not move the needle on the Democrat lead in the national polls.”

The greater worry is over how tight the race might be and whether a delay in election results might prove disruptive, said Stephen Innes of AxiCorp.

“A highly polarized and possibly legally contested U.S. election is just around the corner,” Innes said. “With mail-in votes likely to be too high [and potentially questioned], there is a chance that we still will not know the result by Inauguration Day, with constitutional chaos ensuing.”