The 2020 election year has seen many twists and turns that have impacted the usual ways we see U.S. elections performed, especially in how debates were conducted. We have seen the second planned presidential debate turn into a townhall for each respective candidate. Viewers have also seen the rhetoric and mannerisms (or lack thereof) used by each candidate, especially President Trump, to capture the public’s attention.
Although aggressive and over-critical speech has been used by many candidates in elections, the tactics and rhetoric used by Donald Trump towards the 2020 debates and town hall displayed authoritarian behavior in that he degraded norms and cornerstones of democracy that are essential for a democratic debate, as well as attempted to invalidate Joe Biden as a legitimate opposition in the public’s eyes.
The importance of debates are displayed during a democratic election. In a democracy, a free and fair election is integral to maintain its health . Debates allow for an equitable, public platform for both candidates to make their case to possible voters. Therefore, it is essential that both candidates practice mutual toleration  and allow public opposition in order for American voters to form a proper opinion on who they would vote for . This was not the case in the 2020 presidential debates.
To start, Trump’s unwillingness to cooperate with the original plan of hosting a second presidential debate virtually could be seen as a criticism of the importance of debates to a democracy, regardless of the format. When asked why he did not want to cooperate to stage a virtual debate, he responded by saying the format in itself is “not what debating’s all about” and “ridiculous.” With less than one month before the election, it is not only necessary for the public to see the presidential candidates discuss issues pertinent to the well-being of the nation, but also to see the president cooperating and validating the importance of debates with public opposition . His move to criticize and refuse the idea of a debate or town hall undermines an essential rule of democracy .
His opposition did not last long. The Trump administration moved to have his town hall with NBC at the same time as Biden’s scheduled town hall with ABC. There is no denying that the move could be seen as a way to further divide viewers into watching one debate over the other.
This move did not seem to work in Trump’s favor as Biden’s town hall garnered 14.1 million viewers while Trump’s brought in 13.5 million. However, taking these numbers into perspective, they show an almost even split between the American public over who preferred to watch who. Of course, these numbers do not show us the complete demographic and party affiliation of viewers, and both were later available to watch online. Nevertheless, it is important to note how the move to host dueling town halls divided the public sphere during a crucial time in the election. Trump’s motive to host at the same time can be to manipulate the American public as in this format you can only hear one side speak, with no ability to compare policies at the immediate moment to form a complete opinion. Along with a legitimate opponent, political debate is not only required but the core to upholding democratic values . Without a fair debate (or town hall), there cannot be a fair election.
Continuing on to speech employed in the debates, one can argue that harsh remarks against the opposing candidate is often seen in debates. This does not necessarily mean that the candidates partaking in such behavior are authoritarians trying to derail democracy. It can be a part of a healthy democracy and a natural occurrence in the heat of the moment in order to garner more favor with the people. Biden shared his fair share of unprofessional insults towards Trump such as telling him to “shut up” and calling him a “clown.” However, one has to look at the overall picture and context of how the candidate uses speech and the debate to bring down his opponent and influence viewers.
Trump showed an extreme lack of respect for norms and his opposition in both presidential debates. He attacked Biden with baseless arguments such as framing him as a “one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history” and consistently interrupting his time to speak. Trump violates mutual toleration in this aspect by refusing to see Biden as a “decent, patriotic, law-abiding” citizen . By painting Biden as the enemy through calling him ‘racist’ and against the public, he attempted to manipulate his supporters into seeing Biden as an illegitimate opposition and a threat to democracy as past and present authoritarian leaders tend to do .
Most alarmingly during the first debate, Trump called out a far-right extremist group, the Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by” which can be seen as a call for violence in front of millions of viewers. His extremist supporters watching can take this as encouragement to attack anyone in his way. Using his voice during the debate to possibly encourage violence by extremist groups is out-right behavior displayed by authoritarians  in the most frightening way.
Trump’s aggressive speech in the debates were not just slight petty remarks or criticisms on the opposition’s ability to lead a country. As highlighted here, Trump displays authoritarian behavior not only in how he utilizes speech and debate to invalidate Biden as a respectable candidate through malicious insults, but through possibly inciting violence and non-cooperation in the public eye. Overall, his behavior in debates negatively impacts the 2020 elections, thus attacking an essential component of democracy. We could see the influence of his words towards democracy in the coming months leading up to the transition of power to Biden. Roald Dahl, “Democratization and Public Opposition,” in Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), 1-16.
 Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018), 65, 99-117.
 Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 25-32, 42-43.
 Ozan Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 100, no. 4 (May 2015): 1673-1742.