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.

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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.