Trump loses on the merits
His antics didn't overshadow his message, and his message is a bad one
The conventional wisdom heading into the final presidential debate was that all President Trump needed to do was remain calm and act like a passing human being to regain his footing in his now long-shot bid to retain control of the White House. He managed not to lose his cool every five seconds, but, unfortunately for him, he still lost the debate to former Vice President Joe Biden decisively. That's because the modern Republican Party's policy positions are politically disastrous and virtually indefensible, even when they're outlined semi-coherently.
Trump entered Thursday's debate trailing Biden by nearly 10 points in the Five Thirty Eight polling average, and hasn't been within 8 points since before he was hospitalized with COVID-19 on October 3rd. If today's numbers hold for another week and a half, the president will go down to the worst defeat in American politics in 36 years and likely take the GOP's Senate majority with him. His performance in the first debate with Biden on September 29th was such a horror show of emotional incontinence, relentless sociopathy, and repellant hubris that it terrified the audience and triggered an unprecedented weeks-long decline in his polling numbers.
The president could have stanched the bleeding a week ago by participating in the October 15th virtual forum arranged by the Commission on Presidential Debates to protect against the White House team's homicidal disregard for social distancing and masking practices in the fight against COVID-19. Instead, the president threw a messy tantrum, claiming a virtual debate was unworkable even though hundreds of millions of Americans have been doing their jobs over Zoom and Slack and Google Hangouts for half a year. Is there an adult alive today in this country who hasn't been forced to produce miracles on a video conference? Why does the president think he's too good for technology that has literally kept the whole economy from imploding?
We'll never get a firm answer to that one. All we know is that for weeks before this showdown, Trump's advisers pleaded with him to act less like a logorrheic basket case in an ill-fitting skin suit and more like a human being with some kind of minimal understanding of decency. The big question asked in media circles was whether he could pull of this kind of sudden transformation. The prevailing consensus was: probably not.
In a way, he defied those low expectations. He kept his yap latched during most of Biden's time and, most unexpectedly, didn't directly assail moderator Kristen Welker as an Enemy of the People or the proceedings as a Deep State Hoax. Unlike in the first debate, his antics didn't constantly overshadow his message. In the end, though, it turned out that Trump's message isn't actually much more appealing than his worst behavioral shenanigans.
Given the opportunity to ramble at length without the obligation to incessantly interrupt Biden, Trump managed to repeatedly hang himself with his own words. His first mistake was to lean into his disastrous rhetoric about "Democrat" states, cities, and politicians. "His Democrat governors, Cuomo in New York, you look at what's going on in California, you look at Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Democrats, Democrats all," he ranted, just minutes into the debate. "They're shut down so tight and they're dying." He called New York City "a ghost town." This repulsive, brain-dead hyper-partisanship granted Biden an incredibly easy layup: "And I don't look at this in terms of the way he does, blue states and red states. They're all the United States."
Granted, Biden didn't make the case in the same electric way that Barack Obama did at his keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. But maybe for the first time in this campaign, Biden seemed genuinely comfortable as the Not-Obama, someone running on his own unique appeal to seniors and moderates and genuflectors to a long-gone normalcy that only he can restore. At this point, Biden seems to understand that his speeches aren't going to light up Twitter algorithms, and has adjusted his strategy accordingly.
A great example of Trump losing on the merits rather than his behavior came during the brief immigration portion of the debate. The president desperately tried to argue that the children permanently separately from their parents arrived via "coyotes and lots of bad people, cartels." Again, an easy layup and a completely incomprehensible gambit from the president, whose immigration policy is wildly unpopular. Biden fired back: "Their parents were with them. They got separated from their parents. And it makes us a laughingstock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation."
Trump showed no empathy and no remorse. He talked about "rapists" and "bad persons." He accused immigrants of being "low IQ." The pièce de résistance was when Biden lamented the hundreds of children who lost their parents forever due to the Trump administration's cruelty, and the president said either "good" or "go ahead." It was a chilling moment of complete indifference to human suffering, to which anyone who has ever loved a child surely recoiled in disgust.
The president's problem isn't that he acted like a jerk in the first debate — it's that he is a jerk, with a jerk's policies and a jerk's instincts and a jerk's sense of right and wrong. He proved this over and over, from his insensitive attacks on Hunter Biden to his weird non-sequiturs that only people steeped in the Fox News Expanded Cinematic Universe would understand. He ranted about "AOC plus three" and Hunter Biden's laptop and how the Black Lives Matter movement thinks cops are "pigs in a blanket" and that they want to "fry them like bacon" and repeated his ludicrous boasts about how he's the best president for Black Americans since Abraham Lincoln.
He used his time to address climate change to claim that "India is filthy" and that "I do love the environment." These are not only prima facie preposterous claims that only a credulous child could believe, but also fundamentally irreconcilable on the merits. Does he think Black Americans are right to feel abused by the criminal justice system, or are cops the greatest who have done nothing wrong? Even when this guy is trying to make sense, he's pretty far from making sense.
Look, Trump wasn't as bad as he was three weeks ago. But it's a measure of how far he has lowered the bar that this abysmal ruin of a performance was lauded as a game-changer by right-wing hacks desperate to change the clear narrative of this race. It did nothing for him.
It's worth noting that Republicans have been judged the loser of almost every single debate since the turn of the century in scientific snap polls — the only exceptions being Mitt Romney's obliteration of a listless President Obama in the first 2012 showdown, and George W. Bush's narrow victory over Al Gore in the second 2000 debate. Other than that it's been a century-long series of routs for the GOP, in these settings and on election day, where their candidates have won the popular vote just once since 1988.
President Trump's unique brand of hatefulness might allow leading party elites to explain away the coming disaster with his undeniable, galactic defects. But maybe even a Republican president at his attenuated best doesn't cut it for most people. At a certain point, Republicans should really ask whether their candidates are flawed, or whether voters simply do not like their policy ideas.
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