As we all know, the first Presidential Debate of the 2020 Presidential Election was held on Tuesday, September 29, 2020. It was neither presidential nor a debate. It was a national embarrassment. But it gives us an opportunity to think about the ethics of the presidential debate.

Debates are oral. Debate questions are in writing. We must all be thankful for that. The questions were coherent on Tuesday night. The answers, not so much. The questions were carefully prepared, well thought out, sensitive, inquiring, and fair. The oral answers, taunts, grunts, and wave offs were unparalleled in debate history. Aristotle, arguably the greatest thinker in politics, psychology and ethics, would have bowed his head and boxed his quill. None of his questions would have been answered.

Were Chris Wallace’s questions answered? In a word, no. At least not from the right side of the debate arena Tuesday night. Arena is an apt description. It felt like a boxing arena, a bullring in old Mexico, or the bucking chutes at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. We should have seen it coming. Boxers touch gloves at the beginning of the bout. Bullfighters bow and tilt their red capes at the bull. Bull riders nod at the arena boss just before the gate swings open. But this year, the customary handshake before the debaters took to their podiums was skipped.

Presidential debates have three participants: two debaters and one moderator. By design, the moderator is supposed to be moderate. He was. In this first debate season, the moderator was Fox News’ Chris Wallace. He tried his best to moderate, but was buffed, rebuffed, and ignored by one of the bulls in the ring. The questions were written, presented and quickly ignored by Bull Number One. In the end, Bull Number Two was taunted and dismissed by Bull Number One. The moderator tried to tamp down Bull Number One, but he could smell blood and was on fire. The moderator should have come to the debate with red and yellow soccer referee flags at his table.[1]

Six topics were agreed to by the Presidential Election Commission and both campaigns. (1) Trump and Biden’s records, (2) the Supreme Court, (3) COVID-19, (4) the economy, (5) race and violence in our cities, and (6) the integrity of the election. That much we knew in advance.

The questions were written by Chris Wallace. They were not given to either campaign in advance. The country heard the questions for the first time just as Mr. Wallace posed them to the candidates. Bull Number One, a large man speaking in cursive run-on fragments, ignored both the questions and the moderator, stoking fires instead of thoughts. Bull Number Two, smaller, more coherent, speaking in measured tones, tried in vain to answer the moderator, but struggled because Bull Number One talked over both the moderator and his opponent. He ignored most taunts and barbs by looking away from Bull Number One and speaking directly into the focused lens of the TV camera—hoping to see the eyes of the American public.

The NY Times reported, “The chaos of the event has left allies and rivals alike questioning the state of American democracy and the country’s place on the global stage.”[2]

The LA Times said, “Fox News anchor Chris Wallace was surprised by the ugly contentiousness of the first 2020 debate between President Trump and his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, on Tuesday, but he believes the clash still offered viewers plenty of insights about the two candidates.”[3]

Fox News said, “Tuesday’s first presidential debate was a ‘blown opportunity’ for President Trump.”[4]

The Ethical Editor called it, “A hot mess. A debate unlike anything that has ever happened.”[5]

Global Media said, “US voters have endured the first of three presidential debates between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The event has also prompted a huge reaction from world audiences who tuned in for the chaotic event. Newspapers and commentators around the world have criticized the tone and tactics of the debate.”[6]

President Trump tweeted after the debate, “Nobody wants Sleepy Joe as a leader, including the Radical Left (which he lost last night!).”[7]

Democratic nominee Joe Biden tweeted after the debate, “There’s no other way to put it: the President of the United States refused to disavow white supremacists on the debate stage last night.”

Undecided swing state voters used these words to describe President Trump’s debate performance: “Puzzling,” “arrogant,” “unhinged,” “bully,” “classic Trump.”[8]

The same group of undecided swing voters described Biden as, “Politician, predictable, leader, rehearsed, nice guy, compassion, coherent, evasive.”[9]

Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine praised President Trump’s performance, calling it “a great job.”[10]

It was a job all right—done on the moderator, the opponent, and the rest of us.

Chris Wallace, the well-prepared moderator, after posing ethical and meaningful questions, went public the next day. “After nearly an hour of bickering—at times shouting—between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, Chris Wallace, the Fox News anchor moderating the first US presidential debate, finally lost his patience. ‘ I hate to raise my voice, but why should I be any different from the two of you,’ he admonished the candidates, though he was probably speaking more to Trump, who interrupted both Wallace and Biden repeatedly during the debate. With countless interruptions, personal attacks and name-calling, some have already called it the worst debate they’ve ever seen.”[11]

“Worst” is a rarely used ethical norm. But it is apt for this non-debate. 

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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[1] Yellow and red cards are used as a means to discipline players for misconduct during the game. A yellow card is used to caution players, while a red card results in the player’s dismissal from the field of play. … However, if a player receives two yellow cards in one game, he gets an automatic red card.








[9] Ibid.