At the start of every public debate they host, the UDS hands out leaflets to attendees. These usually contain background about the debate, as well as more general information about the society itself, including the names and contact details of all of the members of the Board of Ten, the UDS’s governing committee. This time, however, names of committee members were absent, replaced by those of current and former US Presidents. John F Kennedy had apparently come back from the dead to act as UDS President, while Bill Clinton seemed to have left the campaign trail to fill the role of Sergeant-at-Arms. Now, obviously this was partially a joke, a splash of humour to tie in to what had been billed as a comedy debate.
However, there was also a more serious reason for the change. Due to the controversial nature of the motion, the UDS had spent the 48 hours prior to the debate being heavily criticised, not just by students and the University authorities themselves, but also the national press and even a local politician. The name changes were a means of protecting the anonymity of Board of Ten members against harassment. This slightly queasy mixture of humour and deadly seriousness ran through the entire atmosphere of the night from start to finish.
Before continuing, it’s worth pointing out that this controversy in itself did not detract from the debate. In fact, it probably helped the UDS advertise the debate as effectively as effectively as Trump’s frequent, outrageous statements have helped him to advertise his own campaign. I arrived five minutes early to the debate and was met by a queue that stretched from the doors of Lower Parliament Hall to St Mary’s Quad.
The debate itself, despite the controversy, got off to something of a subdued start, with some of the speakers having apparently missed the memo about the comedic purpose of the night. This led to a slightly uncomfortable moment when one speaker insisted, with apparent sincerity, that Trump deserved to die for making repeated offensive statements. Once that particular hurdle was cleared, however, the debate continued on fine form with a collection of speeches as humorous and inventive (not to mention profane) as I’d heard in any other debate.
First, the mechanics of the motion were discussed: how best to dispose of Trump. A James Bond style operation by the British Secret service that would take full advantage of Trump’s resemblance to the villain in an over-the-top action movie? Or a more clandestine operation to avoid making him a martyr? One floor speech suggested that assassination need not be physical, only emotional, and went on to expound on an elaborate plan to strand Trump in Iceland and thereby denying him the attention he seems to thrive on.
The opposition were no less keen to offer counter-suggestions. Why assassinate Trump when he could just as easily be impeached? Why not keep him from the presidency not by using bullets, but by luring him back into his natural habitat, reality TV? And if violent action needed to be used, surely a coup d’état which would install Justin Trudeau as President would be more effective?
Mechanics aside, the debate also dwelt on some profound moral and intellectual topics. Is the taking of a life justified by the threat to international security that the proposition claimed Trump faced? Would killing Trump really do anything to assuage the deep feelings of disenfranchisement that lead to his rise? Do we, as St Andrews students, have a right to say we know more about a candidates suitability for high office than the people who voted him in? And are the tacos at Trump Towers sufficiently heart attack inducing that they could be used as an assassination weapon?
Despite the verbal fireworks, however, the debate was hardly the hotbed of radicalism that some predicted. The audience roundly rejected the motion, with more abstaining than voting for killing Trump. The only thing this debate proved more fully than the fact that St Andreans are averse to murder of foreign rulers, was that they are more than happy with controversy. Heading out of the debate, a member of the audience observed loudly, “To be honest, I don’t think that was too bold. Now, a debate about abortion. That would have been ballsy.”