JoLIE 14:2/2021


Back to issue page








Adina Botaș

1 Decembrie 1918 University of Alba Iulia, Romania






This paper proposes a pragma-rhetorical analysis of discourse-in-interaction, focusing on several ironic and sarcastic COVID-related verbal exchanges between the finalists to the most recent presidential election in the US. The sequences submitted to analysis were extracted from the first of the two debates that took place before the election. With a general “negative tone”, according to post-debate tolls, repeatedly labelled by commentators and journalists as “the worst presidential debate ever seen”, the confrontation between the candidates to presidency has numerous moments of reference to COVID-19, all turning the virus into a verbal weapon (Jankélévich 1964) of attack against the opponent. As the presidential ethos (Charaudeau 2005) and the formalised setting of pre-election debates (Kerbrat-Orecchioni 2013) require, in this genre of discourse in interaction protagonists often resort to highly sophisticated forms of attack, which are aimed to damage the image of the opponent and benefit the one of the attackers, at the same time (Charaudeau 2015). The COVID-19 pandemic crisis represented a pivotal aspect of the election campaign strategies of the finalists to the 2020 run-off, presenting contrastive, conflicting perspectives, and is an extensive subject of controversy all through the interaction, despite having been dedicated one of the six sections of the debate. Candidates present strong opposing positions on basically all aspects concerning the novel coronavirus. When it comes to how it had been handled up to the moment of the debate, protagonists trace a clear line between praising the “phenomenal job” the actual president claims to have done and blaming the total lack of plan and basically no effective action for mitigating the spread of the virus, accused by the democrat candidate. The then president’s repeatedly expressed short shrift to wearing masks, as opposed to his opponent’s fervour towards it, the country’s present economic situation, or its borders policies, as they have been affected by the pandemic, are only a few of the contexts in which COVID-19 becomes a motive alleged in order to disqualify the other, up to the point where appellatives such as “clown” are being employed. Considering that talk-in-interaction, and especially face-to-face interaction, are defined by the particularity of discursive co-construction, as well as the negotiation of social and contextual identities (Kerbrat-Orecchioni 2005), given the high percent of fresh talk (Goffman 1981), despite the permanent efforts put into face-work (Goffman 1967), pre-election debates are always an interesting space for undertaking any investigation, from a linguistic point of view, even more so in these undoubtedly “perilous times”, as the press likes to refer to the current phase of our history. 


Keywords: COVID-19; US Presidential debate; Discourse analysis; Discourse-in-interaction.





Brown, P., & Levinson, S. (1987). Politeness. Some universals in language use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Charaudeau, P. (2005). Le discours politique. Les masques du pouvoir. Paris: Vuibert.


Charaudeau, P. (2006). Des catégories pour l’humour?. Questions de Communication, 10, 19-41. doi:


Charaudeau, P. (2011). Des catégories pour l’humour. Précisions, rectifications, compléments. In M.D. Vicero Garcia (Ed.), Humour et crises sociales. Regards croisés France-Espagne (pp. 9-43). Paris: L’Harmattan. Retrieved 16 June, 2020, from,274.html


Charaudeau, P. (2013). L’arme cinglante de l’ironie et de la raillerie dans le débat présidentiel de 2012. Langage et Société, 146, 35-47. doi:


Charaudeau, P. (2015). Le débat présidentiel. Un combat de mots. Une victoire aux points Revue Langage et Société, 1(151), 109–129. Retrieved 18 June, 2020 from


Goffman, E. (1967). On face-work: An analysis of ritual elements in social interaction. In A. Jaworski, & N. Coupland (Eds.), The discourse reader (2006), 2nd edition (pp. 299-310). New York: Routledge.


Goffman, E. (1981). Forms of talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


Jankélévitch, V. (1964). L’ironie. Paris: Flammarion.


Kerbrat-Orecchioni, C. (2005). Le discours en interaction. Paris: Armand Colin.


Kerbrat-Orecchioni, C. (2013). L’ironie: problèmes de frontière et étude de cas. Sarkozy face à Royal (2 mai 2007). In M.D. Vivero Garcia (Ed.), Frontières pour l’humour (pp. 27-62). Paris: L’Harmattan.


Kerbrat-Orecchioni, C. (2019). Le débat Le Pen/Macron du 3 mai 2017: Un débat «disruptif » ?. Paris: L’Harmattan.


Reisigl, M., & Wodak, R. (2009). The discourse-historical approach. In R. Wodak, & M. Meyer (Eds.), Methods of critical discourse analysis, 2nd edition (pp. 87-121). London: Sage.


Tannen, D. (2020, October 1). Taunts and abuse: On what really happened between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Literary Hub.


Wilson, D., & Sperber, D. (2012). Meaning and relevance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:


Web sources, Fox News: Trump-Biden presidential debate moderated by Chris Wallace | FULL, accessed October 1st, 2020, from


Donald Trump & Joe Biden 1st Presidential Debate Transcript 2020, accessed February 2nd, 2021 from URL:



How to cite this article: Botaș, A. (2021). Pre-election debates in times of COVID-19: how the virus is used as a weapon in the war for the US presidency. Journal of Linguistic and Intercultural Education – JoLIE, 14(2), 7-18. doi:



For details on subscription, go to: