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Beyond the Debate: Trump Is Running on Empty

Instead of ideas, the president offered lies, evasions, and weapons-grade exaggerations.
October 23, 2020
Beyond the Debate: Trump Is Running on Empty
US President Donald Trump speaks during the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 22, 2020. (Photo by JIM BOURG / POOL / AFP) (Photo by JIM BOURG/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Last night Trump blew his last, best chance to save his campaign—from himself.

This debate still mattered. Although Trump is wheezing uphill, a path to victory still exists: most likely, harvesting the combined 64 electoral votes of Florida, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.

In each of those states Trump has banked a substantial advantage in new voter registrations. His imperative now is to bring home disaffected Republicans and persuadable independents. Combine that with relentless voter suppression and post-election maneuvers, and Trump might yet have a chance.

Set aside that such a “victory” would do our democracy incalculable damage. That Trump pursues it so openly underscores his central dilemma: He cannot help flaunting his own repellent pathology.

Last night’s debate was made even more critical for Trump by Trump himself: Ever the petulant fool, he ducked out of a scheduled second debate after it became virtual—because, in his carelessness for others, he had contracted COVID-19. Worse, he filled the time slot with a one–man town hall which he swiftly converted into an orgy of indecent self-exposure.

Asked by moderator Savannah Guthrie to disavow QAnon—the lunatic group which believes that Democrats are spearheading a satanic ring of cannibalistic pedophiles—Trump claimed he knows “nothing about QAnon” or “very little,” but praised their devotion to protecting children. (In August, remember, he also noted that “they like me very much.”) When Trump refused to disown his retweeting of the insane assertion that Barack Obama killed SEAL Team Six to cover up the fake death of bin Laden, Guthrie protested in lacerating wonder: “You’re the president. You’re not like someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever!”

But he is, and so he does, quite relentlessly, “whatever”—starting with serving as his own politically demented campaign manager. Bemoans veteran GOP poster Frank Luntz: “It is the worst campaign I’ve ever seen and I’ve been watching them since 1980. They’re on the wrong issues. They’re on the wrong message. They’ve got their heads up their asses.”

Instead of modulating his pitch to reach undecided voters, Trump seeks out shills like Sean Hannity to serve as his media comfort animals. Impervious to advice, he slights running on his only residual strength—his perceived economic stewardship—in favor of recycled recitations of feuds, resentments, and personal grievances of interest to no one save the most insular members of his base.

In a call scheduled to energize thousands of campaign workers, Trump raised their spirits by labeling Anthony Fauci a “disaster,” claiming that the media was filled with “sick people,” asserting that Joe Biden should “be in jail,” and revealing that Americans are sick of hearing about a deadly pandemic which is resurging on his watch. His rallies for the faithful—conducted without regard for public health protocols—have become a numbingly familiar litany of preposterous venom: Biden is a “socialist”; Kamala Harris “a communist”; and the government riddled with obscure deep-state actors whose singular mission is to persecute Trump.

Meanwhile, the number of daily new cases of COVID has jumped 33 percent in the last two weeks—including surges in politically pivotal states like Wisconsin and Iowa. After 10 months, Trump still has no coherent plan to control the spread of the disease—preferring, despite the rising toll of death, to claim that America is “rounding the corner” and speeding toward a “cure” which does not exist. After all, he told his campaign workers, “People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots.”

Blame the media, he told rallygoers in Arizona: “You turn on CNN, that’s all they cover: COVID, COVID pandemic, COVID, COVID, COVID. You know why? They’re trying to talk everybody out of voting. People aren’t buying it, CNN. You dumb bastards.” But not as dumb, apparently, as the 220,000 Americans who died instead of rounding the corner.

Trump’s coronavirus task force has degenerated into a fractious and anti-scientific netherworld. The protagonist of this disarray, Dr. Scott Atlas, is a professionally unqualified catspaw for Trump who embraces the dangerous theory of herd immunity, denigrates the use of masks, and views testing for younger people as superfluous—as if the young don’t infect the older and more vulnerable. Little wonder that, as the Washington Post reports, the genuine experts stuck with Atlas despise him.

But Atlas also serves to encourage Trump’s opposition to money for testing as part of a second stimulus package, and to inspire his dismissive remark to Guthrie that “I’ve heard many different stories on masks.” When Guthrie responded that government health officials uniformly advocate their use, Trump countered by citing “Scott Adkins.” To Guthrie’s rejoinder that Atlas “is not an infectious disease expert,” Trump replied: “He’s one of the great experts of the world”—meaning, one must assume, that special world of Trump’s own.

This would be farcical were it not so deadly. Last Sunday on Meet the Press, Dr. Michael Osterholm warned that “the next 6 to 12 weeks are going to be the darkest of the entire pandemic.” While Trump may not know or care, a critical mass of the electorate does.

Unsurprisingly, a fresh New York Times/Siena College poll shows that voters are focused on stemming the pandemic and rescuing a stymied economy with more stimulus spending. Critically, Biden leads Trump by 12 points as the leader best suited to cope with the coronavirus. As a corollary, Biden is catching up on the question of economic stewardship.

But instead of addressing Americans concerned with a virus which is threatening their health while transforming every aspect of life, Trump views himself as its principal victim. No doubt that is why he blew off another chance to speak to the public at large—storming out of a taping for 60 Minutes because Leslie Stahl was asking too many questions about COVID-19.

But the political landscape depicted by the Times/Siena poll offers Trump little refuge. He is losing support among his base voters, non-college-educated whites. On issue upon issue, respondents favor Biden: maintaining law and order; uniting the country; selecting Supreme Court justices; and, critically, providing healthcare. At a time when more voters than not expect the pandemic to worsen, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed that 79 percent of Americans want to preserve protections for people with pre-existing conditions, and that a solid majority oppose abrogating Obamacare.

Even immigration, once Trump’s signature issue, is losing force. According to Gallup, more Americans than ever before are now inclined to believe that immigrants enrich the country, and to sympathize with refugees from hardship and oppression. An appalling report from NBC News underscores why: Lawyers appointed by a federal judge to identify separated migrant families have not yet found the parents of 545 children—two-thirds of whom were deported to Central America without their kids.

The issue of greatest potential adversity for Biden is expanding the Supreme Court—the Times/Siena poll found that 58 percent of voters are opposed, and only 31 percent are supportive. But Biden has taken no position, and he’s too savvy to validate Trump’s attacks by unequivocally embracing court packing. Instead, he told 60 Minutes that he would create a bipartisan commission to study the issue of Supreme Court reform and make recommendations within 180 days after he becomes president—neatly defanging the question.

So what is the issue which Trump imagines will rally Americans to his side? The perfidy of Hunter Biden.

The kernel from which this notion springs is a report in the New York Post—planted by that unimpeachable source and Borat bit player Rudy Giuliani—so dubious that the reporters directed to write it removed their byline. The essence is that Biden’s surviving son supposedly brokered a meeting between his father and a shady Ukrainian gas company. Biden’s campaign denies such a meeting occurred, and the FBI is investigating whether the report originated with a disinformation campaign run by Russian intelligence.

Unruffled, Trump fulminated on Fox & Friends that Attorney General William Barr must immediately investigate Biden and his son because “this is major corruption, and we have to know about this before the election.” So much for the rule of law.

But the purely political problem with Trump’s obsession is identified by the GOP’s Frank Luntz: “Hunter Biden does not help put food on the table. Hunter Biden does not help anyone get a job. Hunter Biden does not provide health care or solve COVID. And Donald Trump spends all of his time focused on that and nobody cares.”

Even more than the pandemic, that besetting pathology—Trump’s crippling inability to distinguish the needs of others from his own—has become has become the defining issue of this campaign. Americans may be sickened by COVID, but they are sick of Donald Trump.

Even a few Republicans are shaking off their party’s Stockholm syndrome. As Ben Sasse asked rhetorically in a phone call with constituents: “What the heck were any of us thinking that selling a TV-obsessed narcissistic individual to the American people was a good idea?”

But despite the strangled angst of Republicans teetering on the electoral abyss, true to his narcissism Trump sees the campaign solely as a mirror of self. As a Republican strategist told the New York Times: “The president appears to have doubled down on a base election strategy, while Republicans down ballot must figure out a way to appeal to independent voters in states like North Carolina and Maine and Michigan.” No doubt they envy the Democrats, who managed to select a presidential candidate who is not only adequately socialized, but sane.

That man, Joe Biden, conducted a parallel town hall last week with significantly more viewers than Trump’s—a largely serene ninety minutes during which he showed a detailed command of public policy. But the heart of his message is a pledge to heal a country riven by Trump’s corrosive instability.

To that end, he has crafted a progressive program which strikes a balance within his own party while appealing to persuadable voters at large. Equally important is the unifying spirit of his symbolically situated speech at Gettysburg: “We are facing too many crises, we have too much work to do, we have too bright a future to have it shipwrecked on the shoals of anger and hate and division.”

In contrast, Trump is banking on anger, hate and division to pull him out. But though the polls are tightening a bit, as anticipated, Biden continues to lead in the universally acknowledged battleground states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona.

Thus in Thursday night’s debate, Trump needed to seriously discredit Biden as a prospective president, while—somehow—making himself more attractive to the dwindling supply of persuadable voters. Even a candidate less denuded of self-awareness would find that dual mission challenging.

Perhaps mercifully for a man so unequipped to calibrate his own behaviors, the self-destructive hectoring which marked Trump’s first debate was minimized by a new rule muting microphones, enabling both candidates to speak for two minutes a subject without interruption. That left Trump to hope that Biden, unassisted, would become sufficiently incoherent to discredit himself.

But Trump has no sustained message of his own, and conjuring a more substantive and empathic persona is way beyond his capacity—even before the debate, he was lashing out at moderator Kristen Welker as “totally partisan.” Other than playing the victim and working the referee, his plans for seizing the popular imagination in these dispiriting times focused on—yes, Hunter Biden.

Biden needed only to keep his cool, and display sufficient command of substance and self to personify leadership. His singular advantage was that Trump came dragging the millstone of his own presidency—and the public weariness with Trump the man. Somehow, some way, he had to persuade voters that four more years of this was safer than trusting Joe Biden to lead us forward.

That proved beyond Trump’s capacity.

In an odd way, the debate occurred on two levels. The first was a superficially standard political contest. Order was maintained. Voices were modulated. Words turned into sentences. Subjects were addressed.

This owed much to the evening’s lynchpin, Welker, and the blessed interposition of the mute function. Under Welker’s firm guidance, for much of the time Trump resembled a normal human being who, if anything, seemed a bit more hale than his rival—a remarkable testament to the world-class care lavished on him when he contracted COVID-19.

But the second level involved substance. An extremely low-information voter, unfamiliar with the issues, might have considered it an even match, and Trump the more forceful contestant. But at the heart of his performance was a void: of achievement; of knowledge; of proposals for the future; and, in several cases, of fundamental humanity. Instead Trump consumed a great deal of airtime with lies, evasions, and weapons-grade exaggerations, most conspicuously about the coronavirus and the supposed corruption of Joe and Hunter Biden.

Not only did we learn, yet again, that America was “rounding the corner” in its fight with the coronavirus, but that foreign leaders expressed amazement at his proactive leadership—without which, he asserted, over 2 million Americans would have died. About the roughly 223,000 who have died, Trump expressed little sadness. After all, we were “learning to live” with the virus—to which Biden mordantly responded that we’re “learning to die with it.”

To Biden’s indictment of his derelictions, Trump had little to say. Biden crisply recited his plan to restore public health and the economy. Trump had no plan save for an as-yet undeveloped vaccine and a nonexistent “cure.”

But this typified Trump’s performance throughout. On healthcare, he promised that in some happy future he would come up with a “beautiful” plan, then falsely accused Biden of wanting to abolish private insurance and establish “socialized medicine.” Again, Biden calmly laid out his actual proposal.

Prodded about climate change, Trump excoriated the Paris climate accord and claimed that Biden wanted to abolish fracking but, yet again, offered nothing of his own. Biden corrected the record—he does not want to abolish fracking—and described his vision of transitioning to a green economy while creating millions of new jobs.

As to child separation and the 545 children in federal custody whose parents cannot be found, Trump falsely insinuated that the Obama administration had initiated the policy. Biden fiercely (and correctly) denied this and said the policy “violates every notion of who we are as a nation.” Further, he described his own immigration plan: a path to citizenship for Dreamers and undocumented immigrants. About that, too, Trump offered nothing save to complain about “catch and release” on Obama’s watch.

Indeed, Trump expressed no sympathy for traumatized children deprived of parents, or Dreamers facing deportation for no fault of their own—which would be the reflex of any politician with a dollop of humanity, or even the ability to fake it. But this was one of several occasions where Trump confirmed that this part of him is simply missing.

When Welker asked both men to address the fears of black parents compelled to coach their kids on how to behave when stopped by police, Trump simply could not do it—he did not even try. And when she raised the issue of families whose health is endangered by their proximity to petroleum refineries, Trump said only that refinery workers were well paid.

Trump was—no surprise—much more voluble when smearing Biden and his son. Repeatedly, and with no basis whatsoever, he claimed that Joe Biden had taken money from various foreign governments. Attacking Hunter Biden with more gusto than clarity, Trump descended into the murk of Fox News conspiracy theories more confusing than galvanizing for anyone not a cognoscente.

In both cases, Biden denied the charges with appropriate brevity and scorn. Finally, he spoke directly to the national audience: “It’s not about his family and my family. It’s about your family.” Reprising this moment toward the end of the debate, Biden again looked into the camera. “You know who he is,” he said of Trump. “You know his character. You know my character. You know our reputations for honor and telling the truth.”

Those were Biden’s strongest moments. His worst, perhaps, came during a discussion of energy policy in the debate’s closing moments.

“Would you close down the oil industry?” Trump asked him. “I would have a transition from the oil industry, yes,” Biden answered. “Because the oil industry pollutes, significantly. . . . Because it has to be replaced by renewable energy.”

When Biden tried to clarify that the transition would occur “over time,” Trump cut in, crowing: “Basically, what he is saying is he’s going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma?”

Biden’s phrasing was inartful, so perhaps some voters will. But, for most, it seems unlikely to make a difference.

For Trump to seem modulated, while novel, was not enough. He needed to deliver a knockout blow—turning Biden supporters into Trump voters. Nothing he did in this moderately interesting evening seemed close to that, and now he has nothing left but rallies and the sound of his own voice.

Election Day is coming swiftly.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.