Why Trump's alpha debate strategy will backfire

Is he trying to make himself less popular?

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Last night, a president with the same abysmal 43 percent approval rating he's had more or less throughout his miserable tenure was granted an extended opportunity to speak directly to an American public that has suffered through an impossible and horrifying seven months of hardship. Instead of appealing to the better angels of our nature, he spent nearly two hours of his first televised debate with former Vice President Joe Biden behaving like an insufferable, Thanksgiving-wrecking narcissist, impervious to the deleterious effect of his manic hatefulness on the audience and falsely confident that riling up his base with aggressive non-sequiturs would somehow deliver him back to the Oval Office. It did not work, not for him, not for his campaign, not for the Republican Party and especially not for the rapidly vanishing dream that a Democrat and Republican can stand in a room and debate one another, if not with civility, at least with some coherence.

The first of three presidential debates between Trump and Biden was ugly in a way that normal language can't quite capture. Moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, the lived experience of it was like watching a plane carrying someone you care about deeply drop out of the sky in mid-flight and explode into flames. I've been to at least 10 funerals that were more fun and spiritually fulfilling than this debate. To call it unbearable would be an affront to the emotion of hopelessness. But if you cut through the thick miasma of these two doddering old men jabbering at each other, what you'll see is a race that is probably unchanged. And that's bad for the president and good for Joe Biden.

The bottom line is that the president has consistently trailed Biden by 7 percent or more in national polls for months, through upheavals and mass death and scandal, and he needed not just to fight to a draw but to fundamentally change the dynamic of the race. Either Trump or his feckless campaign apparently thought that the answer to this problem was to be the worst possible version of himself.

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Trump's strategy fundamentally misunderstands the nature of his electoral peril. Even before the coronavirus disaster, he was mired in the mid-40s in public approval ratings, a problem that can't be attributed solely to negative partisanship. Throughout his presidency, he has alienated the small number of genuinely independent voters by virtue of his cartoonish contempt for areas of the country that didn't vote for him, his amplification of fringe right-wing voices previously relegated to the Dark Web, and his unique inability to even masquerade as someone who represents all Americans. A consistently strong economy and a period of relative calm in America's foreign relations were not nearly enough to get him within sniffing distance of majority support, even at his high points. His inner circle, still drunk on his fluke Electoral College victory in 2016, has never been willing or able to convince him to change course.

Trump's years-long vaudeville performance has left most voters cold, which is why he was trailing Biden badly even before the coronavirus pandemic turned everyone's life upside down and sent the economy spiraling into catastrophe. But it has consistently thrilled anger junkies desperate to own the libs, which is why he's been able to hang onto that sliver of the population, lingering on the margins of competitiveness despite his manifest unfitness for office and pitiful inability to rise to the demands of this terrible moment. It was to those devotees that he spoke last night, not to anyone on the fence. He didn't even try.

Like most people with strong partisan leanings, I was unlikely to listen to President Trump speak words out loud and think that he was making strong, cogent points about public policy. And political science research on these debates is pretty unambiguous: They can cause momentary changes in polling but are unlikely to shift the final outcome by more than a point or two. Most people watching already know who they are voting for and are looking for reasons to solidify their decision rather than change their minds. In close elections like 2000, 2004, and 2016, there is some chance that these proceedings could be a minor factor.

If they're important this year, it's hard to see how they will benefit the president unless he shows up at the next debate with a completely different personality. From the outset, the president chose to interrupt Biden again and again, quarrelling embarrassingly with him as well as Wallace, sending everything repeatedly sideways with mind-numbing cross-talk. If you were unfortunate enough to encounter someone like Trump at a party, you would politely make your excuses, beeline back to the bar, and pour yourself a triple of the nearest hooch.

It's not like the president was saying anything particularly clever with his ceaseless interruptions. When asked about his determination to fill a Supreme Court seat that most voters believe should be filled by the winner of the election, Trump doubled down on his party's mindless hardball. "We won the election, we have the Senate, we have the White House." So persuasive! His robotic answers about his administration's response the COVID-19 pandemic were of course belied by reality and by Biden's clumsy but heartfelt attempts to project empathy for the millions who have lost loved ones, work, and half a year of their lives. Trump, meanwhile, remained fixated on his superspreader rallies: "If you could get the crowds, you would do the same," he shouted childishly at Biden, as if COVID was some kind of popularity contest. Again, this is not a winning position — voters have told pollsters again and again that they think Trump's indoor rally mass death events are a bad idea.

When Biden spoke about his late son Beau's service in Iraq, Trump not only whiffed on a chance to demonstrate the basic human quality of empathy, he launched into a baroque attack on Biden's other son that almost no one of electoral consequence in this country will ever care about. He was completely incapable of defending his administration's ongoing attempts to completely overturn the Affordable Care Act. He didn't make a single resonant observation the entire night.

What viewers are likely to remember more than anything else is the sheer nails-on-chalkboard quality of the whole thing. President Trump just could not stop butting in during Biden's time and even during Wallace's questions. Wallace, his voice occasionally quavering, tried gamely to get things under control. "Mr. President, I am the moderator of this debate, and I would like you to let me ask my question and then you can answer it," Wallace pleaded to no avail. At one point things got so bad that Wallace offered to switch seats with President Trump. Biden's frustration boiled over multiple times, most memorably when he said, "It's hard to get a word in with this clown."

Someone on Trump's team presumably told him to be extremely alpha and to not let Biden get a word in edgewise, which might have worked as a strategy if used sparingly. But Trump of course took it to previously unimagined extremes. There were long stretches of the debate where the audience of tens of millions surely had no idea what was going on except that these two querulous elderly men did not like each other. And anyone with a remotely open mind could see that Biden was doing his best to have the kind of civil debate Americans expected for 40 years prior to 2016.

The president succeeded in destroying the utility of these debates in the same way he has destroyed everything else he has ever come into contact with: by first undermining confidence in the rules, flouting them, and then gleefully exploiting the wreckage. There's no sugarcoating how depressing it was to watch this dispiriting spectacle unfold live.

And Biden rarely did himself any affirmative favors. He was hesitant, stumbling over words and ideas like he did during his first few disastrous performances in the Democratic primary debates. Time and again, Trump sent the volleyball limply into the air for Biden to spike into the sand, and the former vice president just couldn't do it. It's incredibly hard to believe that Biden spent days on preparation and barely fired off a single memorable line other than accurately calling the president a clown and telling him to shut up.

In this long emergency, though, that counts as a win, for Democrats and for hopes of rescuing American democracy against all odds. The ruins of shared discourse can be rebuilt another day. In the meantime, Biden needs first to get across the finish line, and last night did nothing to stop his momentum.

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David Faris

David Faris is an associate professor of political science at Roosevelt University and the author of It's Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. He is a frequent contributor to Informed Comment, and his work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Indy Week.