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The President Is a Sociopath. And 60 Million Americans Like It.

The Cleveland debate revealed everything and changed nothing.
September 30, 2020
The President Is a Sociopath. And 60 Million Americans Like It.

The Cleveland debate was a miniature, 90-minute version of the last 4 years: depressing, exhausting, full of craziness and lies.

Who won? I don’t know. Honestly: I cannot understand how anyone with an IQ over 80 could have watched this disgrace and not come away understanding that the president of the United States is a sociopath.

But I’ll try to put myself in the mind of voters and tell you what I saw.

Donald Trump dominated the debate. Utterly and completely. He was a doughy, orange honey-badger, yelling, shouting, cajoling, needling and—this is the important part—never shutting up. He kept ploughing ahead, no matter what. He bulldozed Chris Wallace. He bulldozed Joe Biden. He turned every question into what he wanted to talk about. He hit all of the notes he wanted: Burisma, stock market, shutdowns, Pocahontas.

If you are a fan of the Trump lifestyle brand—if you have a Trump flag on your boat and wear a MAGA hat because you love pissing off the brown girl with the nose ring at Starbucks—then I suspect that you thought this was the greatest performance by any debater in the history of debates.

So I’m going to guess that people were very happy on Parler.

On the other hand, it’s not clear to me that Trump’s act was effective with undecided voters.

And I say this because Trump treated the debate like he was trying to win an argument between two baby mamas on a trash daytime show, while Joe Biden made a concerted effort throughout the debate to pretend that Trump wasn’t there, often talking directly to voters.

Examples: When Biden brought up the Woodward tapes and Trump’s lying to America about COVID because he didn’t want to panic the country, here’s what Biden said, as he looked straight into the camera: “You don’t panic. He panicked.”

After Trump blubbered about how great the economy is right now, Biden looked straight into the camera and asked, “You folks at home—how well are you doing?”

On one of Trump’s attempts to beat up on Hunter Biden, the vice president gestured straight into the camera and explained, “This is not about my family or his family, it’s about your family.”

The net effect of this was that Biden had a coherent message throughout: I’m on your side.

I can, however, tell you with complete certainty who lost the debate: America.

If you care at all about this country, then there are four things that should terrify you.

(1) The president of the United States was asked to condemn white nationalists and refused. He hemmed and hawed. He tried to shimmy out of it. And in the end the best he could muster was to tell the Proud Boys to “stand by.” The Proud Boys heard his message and saw it as a call to action.

(2) The president of the United States was asked to pledge to tell his supporters to remain calm following the election and to not preemptively declare victory. He flatly refused.

(3) The president of the United States said that “They came after me trying to do a coup.” And that: “We’ve caught them. We’ve caught them all.” And that one of “them” is his opponent.

(4) More than 60 million Americans are going to vote for the president of the United States.

Regardless of who wins this election, how are we supposed to make this thing—here I am referring euphemistically to our glorious experiment in self-government—work when 40 percent of the country wants this shit—here I am not being euphemistic—from their president?

Because these preferences are not based on policy differences concerning marginal tax rates or trade policy or deregulation.

A serious question: Do we need more debates?

I ask for two reasons. First, because that debate felt like it was 7 hours long. It was emotionally, spiritually, physically exhausting. And for no payoff. Nobody learned anything from this debate. And no one is going to learn anything from more debates.

In fact, I would suggest that having two more of these spectacles can only further demean our country and erode the standards we hold for the conduct of people who serve in government.

But the political reality is that Biden has to endure more of this insanity. Canceling would look weak. Voters always prefer the guy who’s willing to work hard for their votes. And this is trite but true: If you want the job of facing down Xi Jinping, you have to be able to face down a reality-show host.

Will this debate matter?

Probably not. The race is stable for a reason.

Now that in itself is bad for Trump. He’s down large and there’s very little time left on the clock. But even that doesn’t so much matter because—as Trump said at the end—his victory scenario no longer entails winning more votes.

If you take anything from Tuesday’s debate, it should be this: The president of the United States’s re-election strategy is to claw his way to victory after the fact by using the courts to throw out votes that have been cast for his opponent.

The entire affair left me feeling like Dr. Leonid Pavel.

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Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.