If there’s any aspect of Donald Trump’s power that the mainstream media consistently underestimates (in part because it sounds so trivializing to say it out loud), it’s the power he derives from being the entertainer-in-chief. He’s the first American president who’s at once a shock-jock comedian, a boardroom P.T. Barnum still coasting on his “Apprentice” aura, and a loudmouth professional wrestler who uses smears and lies instead of elbow drops and piledrivers. All of which is to say that President Trump, regardless of whether you think he’s a great leader or the biggest danger this country has ever faced, is always a creature of showbiz. To deny that is to underestimate him.
In the first presidential debate between Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden, which was held at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Trump played the role of the sternly angry warrior — the outraged chief-executive blowhard who will bully and interrupt, mock and insult, and (of course) make up his own facts, and will say it all with a glowering straight face that’s almost (dare I say it?) morally enraged, as if he had a sixth sense for how to take every sin that he’s accused of and project it onto the other guy.
Trump never relented from this posture. His interruptions were so frequent — and rude — that they turned the entire debate into a train wreck. Certainly the moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, had little luck at reining Trump in. Wallace had to fight to get in his follow-up questions, as surely as Biden had to fight to be heard over Trump’s insult-comic bluster (“He just lost the left”). You can say that Wallace lost control of the debate, or maybe never had it, but what it all added up to is that Trump, in some sick way, bent the rhythm of the night to his will. This was in every sense a performance, and it may yet take him down. Here was a President of the United States refusing, once again, to condemn white supremacy (in other words, he was issuing a statement of support for it), and he should — and could — lose the election on that alone.
Yet Trump, as we know by now, has a way of making up his own rules and making them stick, and if he came off as the liar and bigot he is, in his blithely-impervious-to-the-truth way he also came off as forceful.
Biden, for all his decency and reality-based thinking, did not. It was clear from the opening moments that he’d entered the brightly lit arena of gladiatorial TV that is Trump’s natural habitat. Tonight’s debate was a clash of ideas, a duel between dogmatically opposed visions of what America should be. Yet it was also a full-on Celebrity Death Match, a showdown between a Democratic challenger who presents himself as a pragmatic, compassionate realist and a fire-breathing chief executive who possesses the singular ability to spin whatever he says into a kind of toxic mirage. It was a face-off between Reality (Biden) and Illusion (Trump), all set against the backdrop of a presidency in which Trump has proved, over and over again, that Illusion can triumph.
Trump wore a black tie with diagonal red stripes — a classic killer politician look. Biden’s silver-and-black tie was elegant, but it made him look too much like the father at a wedding. And I make the point only because Biden’s own performance, while he said many of the right things, felt, at too many points, ineffectual and unsure. He didn’t muff anything terribly, yet he wasn’t as fast on his feet as Trump, and he made mini gaffes — like his explanation for how to fill out a ballot that left you more confused than before he said it, or denying that he supported the Green New Deal seconds after sounding like he supported the Green New Deal.
And Biden laughed too much. This was clearly a strategy that had been decided upon ahead of time: that when Trump told one of his whoppers (and we’ll get to those in a moment), Biden would look down and grin that grin, as if he were laughing at the sheer shamelessness of what he was hearing. But that’s not an effective debating technique. You can do it once, or maybe twice. But Biden did it repeatedly, smiling to himself as if to say, “My God, that’s too insane to even answer.”
And, in fact, he didn’t quite answer Trump’s lies — not in the way he should have. He pointed them out; he undercut them; he quoted statistics. Yet for all his laughing contempt, and even his willingness to say a line like “Will you shut up, man?” or to call Trump a ”clown,” he never took command. He never came up with a cleanly articulated moment in which he talked about the way that so many of us feel about this president — that he is reckless, that his sociopathic selfishness is destroying American institutions and American faith, and maybe destroying America itself. Instead, Biden had numbers (“15 percent less violence in America than there was today…”), and he had a lot of fumbling pique.
Trump, of course, said whatever he wanted, and sounded supremely confident about it. He drew on his greatest hits of distortion, going wild with the mythic Trump presidency that lives in his head. He lied about bringing back manufacturing jobs. He lied about President Barack Obama’s record of job creation versus his own. He lied about 308,000 veterans dying “under” Biden, so as to offset the number of Americans who have died under Trump in the age of COVID-19. He lied about the California wildfires resulting less from climate change than from faulty “forest management.” He lied by trashing Biden’s record with the African-American community and lauding his own. He lied (of course!) about his taxes. But Biden, in response to all this, kept shaking his head and saying, in essence, “It’s not true,” as if we didn’t already know that. What he didn’t do is stand up and say: This man lies for a living. And in a president, that’s not just corrupt — it’s crazy. And dangerous.
All of which is to say: For those of us who think Trump represents a great danger indeed, it may not be enough for Joe Biden to win a TKO on the contest of ideas. He needs to defeat Trump in the realm of showbiz power where Trump lives and rules. He didn’t do that tonight.