Whatever your opinion of Donald Trump, there’s no denying that he has a sixth sense not just for lowering the bar but for keeping it low, for taking previously unacceptable levels of presidential bad behavior and normalizing them, for turning rage, chaos, and lies into everyday reality. The latest example might be the way that at the second and final presidential debate, held between President Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., Trump largely abandoned the insult-comic-on-Adderall, I-interrupt-therefore-I-am kamikaze tactics that defined his performance during the first debate. And the result of that change is that for a short while, it almost felt like you were watching the most sedately civilized presidential debate in American history.
“Look, he’s actually speaking calmly and answering the questions! He’s waiting for Biden to finish. He practically sounds (gulp) presidential!” Okay, let’s not exaggerate. Just because Trump was on his relative best behavior didn’t mean that he sounded presidential; he still sounded like a bellicose used-car salesman plucking fake facts out of the air. But the notion that this could play as such a vast “improvement” just shows you how quickly Trump lowers, and trashes, our standards.
Both candidates, of course, were dealing with a telling tweak in the rules: Their microphones would each be shut off during the opposing candidate’s initial two-minute response to a new question. So Trump, during Biden’s answers, couldn’t have interrupted if he wanted to. Nevertheless, that rule tweak — the sound-technology equivalent of putting a dog in a shock collar — did have its intended effect; it got Trump to restrain himself. According to reports, so did his advisers, who looked at the decidedly negative response to Trump’s first debate performance and basically said to him, “By turning that night into a bullying free-for-all, you may have lost the election. If you don’t behave this time, you’ll be blowing a hole in your own leg.”
So Trump, though he still glowered like an actor playing an obscenely sun-tanned crime boss, reverted to his less overtly hostile and more familiar pushy, blithe, nothing-ruffles-me, dodging-the-question-by-glomming-onto-Fox-News-talking-points self. And the moderator, NBC’s Kristen Welker, was superb, not only keeping the peace but serving her follow-ups with supreme flow.
A used-car salesman, of course, has different modes and knows when to use each of them. There’s the high-pressure technique, which works on a certain kind of customer (let’s call that Trump at a rally); there’s the soft sell (that’s Trump talking about how much his administration has done for Black colleges). And then there’s what Trump did for most of the night, which is stick to that rosy “sincere” middle tone that almost makes it sound like he’s singing the words, because what he wants you to listen to isn’t the specific spiel he’s making about the car. (He actually doesn’t want you to pay much attention to that.) It’s all about the trust you should have in him.
And so Trump, once again, tried to sell us. Why did he pay little or no taxes for so many years? Actually, “I prepaid.” (Oh, so that money somehow wasn’t counted?) Asked about his buddy-buddy relationship with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un (which, as Trump evokes it, really does sound like something out of a Seth Rogen movie), he completely bypassed how much his attempt to get North Korea to de-nuclearize had failed, but he kept saying that there has been “no war” — by which he meant a nuclear war, so I guess he expected all of us to feel grateful for that. He repeated his litany of COVID-19 canards, which are starting to sound as familiar as sitcom tropes (“I banned China, he said it was xenophobic”…Biden’s handling of the swine flu was a “total disaster”…Europe now has spikes…Florida and Texas had spikes that are now “over”…”We can’t lock ourselves up in a basement the way Joe does!”).
And then, of course, there were the one-liners, which seem ready to travel right from Trump’s brain to a bumper sticker. “If he’s elected, the stock market will crash!” “He doesn’t come from Scranton!” “They spied on my campaign!” “Nobody is tougher than me on Russia!” “No one has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump!” Oh, and those 545 children of migrants who are still totally disconnected from their parents? “They are so well taken care of!”
I lead with talking about Trump’s performance because this really was his last major shot to shift the paradigm of the election, which doesn’t appear to be tilting his way. For a long time, it was Joe Biden who needed to prove himself — to prove that he’s not just the veteran politician but, at 77, the happy warrior, that he’s mentally vigorous, that he’s not beholden to the left wing of the Democratic Party that he fought off to win the nomination, and that he simply has…the Right Stuff. That, as we’ve learned over the last 40 years, is the candidate people vote for. (We learned it big time with John Kerry vs. George W. Bush.) It’s not enough to have the better policies, or to radiate a sense of decency, though all that helps. You‘ve got to look like you could win a fight and — more than that — that you’d enjoy fighting.
That, let’s be clear, is part of Donald Trump’s P.T. Barnum-meets-Howard-Stern-meets-WWE-meets-Roy-Cohn showbiz political genius. He relishes the fight, and is good at it, and a lot of people like that about him. That’s where he sets the bar.
At tonight’s debate, Joe Biden took that bar, leapt over it, and then grabbed it and gave Trump a few good whacks with it. He defeated Trump soundly: on policy, on passion, on truth (oh, that!), on having a vision for the future that makes you think we could actually get out of the mess we’re in. As noxious as Trump was during the last debate, I was worried, at the time, that his strong-man tactics might end up making him seem…well, strong. And though Biden, in the eyes of most, did what he had to do, giving America a solid alternative to what is turning out to be a slow descent into political and cultural insanity, my own feeling was that Biden’s performance wasn’t focused and decisive enough. To seal this deal, he needed to be better.
Tonight, he was better. And, in fact, he was better than that. He was poised, fast on his feet, but also a man who’d come loaded for bear. He dealt powerfully with the false dichotomy that’s settled into the red-state-vs.-blue-state coronavirus debate, the one that asks: “Are you for lockdowns…or for opening up?” Biden deftly explained why it’s not one or the other (and took an effective shot by saying “I can walk and chew gum at the same time”). He was righteous, with a hint of Dirty Harry, on the subject of foreign interference in elections, or when it came to talking about the laying off of cops and firefighters, or the Trump administration’s failure to bail out small businesses or provide schools with the resources they need to re-open, or about how raising the minimum wage to $15 would not make small businesses go out of business.
Trump, meanwhile, took no such stands, because he had no plans to defend. In a way, tonight’s debate actually was a fine presidential debate, because it laid bare a truly coherent clash of visions: the vision of someone who wants to use government to help people, and is full of fire-tested ideas to do it, and the vision of someone who doesn’t. Asked, point blank, for the hundredth time, how he would replace the Affordable Care Act, Trump once again dithered and created health-insurance castles in the air. He’s proud of having gotten rid of the ACA mandate (“I terminated it — it’s gone!”). But would he answer the question? “A much better health care.” What does that mean? “A beautiful health care….always protecting people with pre-existing conditions.” But how? He’s not saying.
He did say that Joe Biden is coming to take away the health-care plans of 180 million people. But, in fact, he isn’t, because, as he said, he fought off a number of the other Democratic candidates precisely because he supports private insurance. Spreading his arms in mock exasperation, Biden said, “I guess we’re going to get the pre-existing condition plan the same time we get the infrastructure plan.” In other words, never.
In his way, Biden proved that he could play Trump’s game. During the last debate, he tried to rise above it all. Here, he counterpunched, smiling in mock disbelief only at the right moments (“He was there for 47 years, he didn’t do it!” — yes, that’s Trump speaking about Biden and health care), and getting in a pretty damn funny line by calling Trump “Abraham Lincoln” (whom Trump had just compared himself to), a jab that hit hard enough that Trump, all testy and defensive, couldn’t take it. He couldn’t take a taste of his own medicine. Someone should tell him: That’s what happens when you lower the bar.