First Presidential Debate (2020)

The first US presidential debate last night was a pretty torrid affair with frequent interruptions and negotiations for the floor between the candidates and the host. Here is a short transcription and analysis of a specific stretch of discourse.

An accurate transcription of the discourse is vital if we are to understand what the speakers are saying and the intentions behind their utterances.

“Stand back and stand by”

A lot has been made of President Donald Trump’s answer as to whether he would condemn the right-wing group, the Proud Boys, but a close analysis of the discourse immediately preceding this reveals some interesting cues.

The first point is that Trump does seem to agree to condemn white supremacist and militia groups through his backchanneling and body language as the host, Chris Wallace, builds up the question.

In line 12 he replies ‘sure’ to the question ‘are you willing to condemn white supremacists and militia groups’ from the host. He then mouths another ‘sure’ in line 16 together with body language, and then explicitly states that he is ‘willing to do that’ in line 19.

Listen to audio here

01 CW: you have repeated[ly= 
02 DT:                  [we
03 CW: =criticised the (.) the vice president
04     for not specially calling out Antifa 
05     and other left wing [extremist groups 
06 DT:                     [that's right
07     (0.4) 
08 CW: but are you willing 
09     tonight
10     to condemn white supremacist 
11     and militia groups
12 DT: sure
13 CW: and (.) to say that they need to stand down
14     and not add to the violence
15     at a number of these cities
16     ((president mouths 'sure'))
17     as we saw in Kenosha
18     and as we've seen in Portland
19 DT: sure [I'm willing to do that
20 CW:      [are you prepared to specifically
21 DT: but
22 JB: well do it

The host does not seem to pick up on these cues or may just want a more explicit response.

It is interesting to note that the host cues Trump in line 13 by asking if ‘they need to stand down’. Many commentators have not picked up on this. This might explain why Trump later says ‘stand back and stand by’. We do not know what Trump means by this exactly as he has changed the prepositions. The choice of ‘stand by’ is particularly concerning for some because, as has been suggested, he seems to be instructing the right wing group to be ready – ready for what? However I think it is important to note that the host Wallace did introduce ‘stand down’ first.

As the host presses Trump for an explicit condemnation of the right wing group, Trump tries to shift the floor to left-wing groups – see lines 24-27, 30. However the host continues to press for a specific condemnation of right-wing groups. Biden even joins in in 36-38 and 47, 49, 52.

Eventually the name is resolved to the Proud Boys. It is Biden who first suggest this group in line 49 and the host picks up on this.

23 CW: [well go ahead sir
24 DT: [I would say
25     I would say
26     almost everything I see is from the left wing (.)
27     not from the right wing
28 CW: so what are you
29     what [are you
30 DT: [if you look
31 CW: what are you saying
32 DT: I'm I'm willing to do anything
33     I want to see [peace
34 CW: [well then do it sir
35 DT: [I
36 JB: [say it (0.2)
37     do it say it
38      (0.9)
39 DT: you wanna call em
40     (0.5)
41     what d'you wanna call em
42     give me a name
43     give me a name
44 CW: white su[premacists and right
45 DT: [go ahead
46 DT: but who would [you like me to condemn
47 JB: [white supremacists
48 CW: [white supremacists=
49 JB: [Proud Boys
50 DT: who
51 CW: =right ([Proud Boys)
52 JB: [Proud Boys

Trump eventually delivers the infamous line ‘stand back and stand by’ in line 55 below but I’m not wholly convinced that it is a call for action. Some may say it is but there is certainly a lot of cues in the preceding discourse to make this far from certain.

53 DT: Proud Boys?
54     (0.4)
►55 DT: stand back and stand by (0.2)
56     but I'll tell you what (0.3)
57     I'll tell you what (0.4)
58     ((Biden smiles))
59     somebody's got to do something
60     about Antifa and the left
61     because this is not a right [wing problem
62 JB:                             [his own
63     his own [FBI director said
64 DT:         [this is a left wing
65     this is a left wing problem

[ = overlap
(0.2) = length of pause in seconds
DT = Donald Trump; JB = Joe Biden; CW = Chris Wallace

Listen to the audio here

The analysis here shows how a close linguistic transcription analysis following a CA tradition can help us to understand in detail what was said and what was meant. Most commentators fail to consider this.

United States first presidential debate, Fox News, 29th September 2020

Entire debate

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