Penn College Republicans faced off against Penn Democrats in a contentious live-streamed debate Thursday night, mirroring the fractious contest between 1968 Wharton graduate Donald Trump and former Penn Professor of Practice Joe Biden earlier this week.
Roughly 300 viewers watched Thursday night as members of both organizations tackled a variety of questions regarding the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, foreign policy, immigration, and race relations. Student debaters explained why they feel that their respective candidates are best fit to lead the nation for the next four years, with particularly tense moments occurring when the speakers faced off about white supremacy.
The virtual event, hosted by Penn's non-partisan Government and Politics Association, lasted 90 minutes and was open to all members of the Penn community.
The debate began with Penn Dems Legislative Director and College junior Francois Barrilleaux advocating for Biden’s platform, praising his pledge for a clean energy economy by 2050, a national coronavirus testing strategy, and changes in healthcare policy.
“Look, I'm gonna be honest. Joe Biden cannot solve all of our problems, but this election is absolutely necessary if we're going to make any sort of progress because if Donald Trump has taught us anything — other than how to lie to millions of people on live television — it is that our lives and our society are not guaranteed to get better,” Barrilleaux said.
College Republicans followed, as College sophomore Jay Smith, the group’s first-year outreach representative voiced his approval of Trump’s economic leadership, lowering of unemployment rates, and immigration policy.
“I hope you can see the difference between a guy who has been in office for only four years and has already done so much for our country, and a guy who's been in office for over 40 years [and] done more harm than good," Smith said. "He may not have the polish of your average politician, but he's someone who's been going to say and do whatever necessary to fix our country’s problems."
Just like Tuesday night's presidential debate, the coronavirus pandemic dominated the encounter between Penn Dems and College Republicans.
College Republicans’ Jeremy Ashe, a first year and deputy board member, said the Trump’s administration’s response to the economic downturn has been impressive, citing aid distributed to small businesses and relief checks sent to families in need.
“Though Biden just wants to shut down the economy again, Trump recognizes that it needs to stay open for economic sake, for mental health’s sake, for [the danger of] domestic abuse’s sake," Ashe said. "As being proven right now, this can be done in a safe manner. President Trump realizes the complexities COVID-19 poses, and he has matched that and will continue to match that with nuance, comprehensive plans that fit under the federalist system that we have in place.”
In contrast, College junior and Penn Dems Membership Director Cassy Ingersoll cited Trump’s handling of the pandemic only proved to “reveal more about existing problems in the United States."
“The reality is that our current president has acted in a way that has cost our country over 200,000 lives after disbanding any pandemic preparedness the Obama-Biden administration set in place, and instead pushed for our country to reopen too early," Ingersoll said. "This resulted in a summer surge that killed tens of thousands and in workforce and our economy.”
In the debate’s final formal segment, debaters addressed one of the most talked-about points of the presidential debate — nationwide racial tensions the candidates’ approaches to the issue of white supremacy.
“First off, Donald Trump is a white supremacist and a racist. When the KKK had a rally in Charlottesville, Donald Trump described them as ‘fine people.’ I do not feel safe in Trump's America,” Penn Dems Vice President and College sophomore Emilia Onuonga said. “When asked on a global stage to condemn white supremacists, Trump neglected to give an answer. His neglect to answer was his answer.”
Onuonga said she believes Trump dividing America, rather than a leader who brings about peace.
“Trump doesn't calm tension, he incites violence. This is a man who unlawfully tried to turn the U.S. military on its own citizens but 93% of the Black Lives Matter protests were peaceful," she said, referring to a recent study that analyzed thousands of BLM demonstrations across the country.
Smith responded by condemning white supremacy on behalf of College Republicans and stating that he believes Trump is not a white supremacist.
“If you read the transcript, [when asked] Trump said, ‘sure,’ multiple times, to completely denounce white supremacy, and even asked, ‘name the group, and I'll denounce them.”
When asked during the debate if he condemns white supremacists, Trump told the Proud Boys, a far-right group, to “Stand back and stand by." Trump belatedly condemned white supremacists and the Proud Boys in an interview with Sean Hannity on Thursday night.
Though the only speakers of the night were the moderators and five debaters, students tuning into the stream commented on the live chat throughout the event. The chat was so active that debate moderator and College junior Sumant Rao, who is also GPA vice president of external affairs, asked students to “be respectful” of debaters that students that they might not agree with, and be mindful that it “takes a lot of courage” for students to speak about their political opinions.
At the debate’s end, the comment section featured over 1,000 responses, many of which criticized the night's speakers and their candidates, especially the Republican side.
“Let’s refrain from the personal attacks. You know, we don't want this to be like the actual presidential debate,” Rao joked.