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.