You’re losing. You’re losing bad. You’re out of money. Your ads are coming off the air in must-win states. Here it is, the last chance to speak to a big national audience—and for free, really the last opportunity to win back voters who have drifted away from you.
Another politician might have tried to speak to those voters’ deepest fears and concerns, to reestablish an emotional connection, to arrive with consolation for present troubles and credible plans for future improvement. But that is not Donald Trump’s way. Even when invited by the moderator, Kristen Welker, to speak directly to racial-minority families, President Trump could talk only about himself—boast that he had done more for African Americans than all previous presidents except maybe Abraham Lincoln, maybe. He could never, ever manage even the appearance of care and concern for anybody else. Trump erupted in sneering sarcasm when Joe Biden summoned the image of middle-class families at the kitchen table. The very idea of it irked Trump.
Trump behaved better at this second debate than at the first. The mute button was his good friend, and so was the pad of paper on which for the first 10 to 12 minutes he pretended to take notes whenever it was Biden’s turn to speak. The rules of debate two curbed him, restrained the spectacular bad behavior of debate one.
But Trump still arrived with only one plan: Attack and attack. Some of the attacks were wholly phony: Biden as the beneficiary of Chinese cash. Some of the attacks had a basis in reality: Incarceration of under-age border-crossers did begin under Barack Obama and Biden, not Trump. But none of them did what Trump so desperately needed to do: reach voters who suspect he doesn’t care about them at all. These have been difficult months. I feel it. I understand. He could not say it; he could not do it. He could only offer a false promise of vaccines before the end of the year, a promise he hastily retracted under pressure from the moderator for more specifics.
Trump does not do empathy. Even Trump supporters know that by now. Some of them may appreciate it. They prefer anger. But those supporters might consider: Trump showed on that stage why he has so often failed at the job of being president. He rejected reality (that he’s losing because of COVID-19) in favor of a fantasy (that he’d win if only he could tell more people about these latest allegations from Rudy Giuliani). He refused to care about what voters care about—and instead insisted that voters care about what he cares about.
“You talk too damn much and too damn much of it is about you.” That’s how the detective Philip Marlowe bids farewell to a narcissistic criminal in Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye. If America dismisses Trump in November, he may hear the same send-off.