President Donald Trump arrived at the first debate with a theory and a plan. The theory was that American voters crave dominance, no matter how belligerent or offensive. The plan was to hector, interrupt, and insult in hopes of establishing that dominance.
His theory was wrong, and his plan was counterproductive.
Trump walked onto that stage in Cleveland seven or eight points behind, because the traditional Republican advantage among upper-income and educated voters has dwindled; because non-college-educated white women have turned against him; because he is losing older voters to his mishandling of COVID-19; because the groups he needs to be demobilized—African Americans, the young—are up-mobilized. On the present trajectory, nearly 150 million votes are likely to be cast in 2020. If Trump wins 43 percent of them and Joe Biden 50 percent, not even the Electoral College can convert that negative margin into a second Trump term.
He needed to do something to change that reality.
Instead, he talked to Facebook conspiracists, to the angriest of ultra-Republican partisans, and to violent white supremacists. He urged the Proud Boys to “stand by” because “somebody’s got to do something” about “antifa and the left.” He refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power in the (likely) event that he loses. He threatened months and months of chaos if the election does not go his way.
Trump yelled, threatened, interrupted—and changed nothing. All he did was confirm the horror and revulsion of the large American majority that has already begun to cast its ballots against him.
Correction: Trump did one thing. On the Cleveland stage, Trump communicated that he will seize any opportunity to disrupt the vote and resist the outcome. He communicated more forcefully than ever that the only security the country has for a constitutional future is that Biden wins by the largest possible margin.
Many people will criticize how the moderator, Chris Wallace, managed the debate, and surely he could have done better. But really, nothing short of a shock collar around Trump’s neck would have disciplined the man who is, after all, the president of the United States. A president who does not respect tax laws, does not respect the FBI, is surely not going to be constrained by a debate moderator. It was pandemonium. But it was revealing pandemonium. Who and what Trump is could not have been more vividly displayed in all the psychological reality. Debate one was not Donald Trump versus Joe Biden, or red versus blue. It was zookeepers versus poop-throwing primates.
Biden may be faded from what he was: perhaps less crisp, less sharp, less fast. But when Biden spoke, he spoke to and about America. Trump spoke only about his wounded ego. Biden communicated: I care about you. Trump communicated: I hate everybody. Biden succeeded in putting his most important messages on record: your health care, your job, your right to equal respect, regardless of race or creed—all against Trump’s disregard and disrespect. Trump might have imagined that he projected himself as strong. The whole world witnessed instead the destructive rage of a bully confronting impending defeat. Trump disgraced the presidency on that stage. He might just have delivered the self-incapacitating wound that pushes the country toward self-salvation.