Like most Americans who have not spent the past decade broiling their brains in Fox News and right-wing radio, I watched President Donald Trump’s noisily toxic performance in Tuesday’s presidential debate and wondered: Which gods have I angered, and how might I appease them?
It was a concussive 90 minutes. Trump’s relentless, snarling interruptions and refusal to abide by even the rough outlines of the debate’s rules created as disgraceful a display of public behavior as we’ll ever—hopefully—see from a U.S. president.
That wasn’t a leader prepared to debate policy knowledge and instill confidence in his steady hand. That was a red-faced, snot-nosed kid in the third-row seat of someone’s minivan throwing a wailing temper tantrum, the kid we see in the parking lot and think, “Man, I’m glad that’s not my child.”
The debate was a spectacle. A good one, I suppose, for those who want a president incapable of displaying a shred of human empathy, incapable of spitting five words without lying and unwilling, for seemingly the millionth time, to denounce violent white supremacists.
But for those less inclined to chaos, it was a grotesque spectacle, one that left me and I’m sure many others slack-jawed, wondering how anyone—anyone!—can watch Trump angrily blather and not see an incompetent, cruel narcissist.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who the Trump camp bizarrely wrote off as “senile” in the run-up to the debate, didn’t need to do much to exceed expectations. And he did as well as can be expected for a man trying to speak in the gale-force winds of a poop hurricane.
Constantly interrupted by Trump in ways that would make the Pope start throwing punches, Biden managed to show the thing he possesses that Trump wholly lacks: compassion.
Biden rarely looked at Trump, but routinely looked directly into the camera, making clear he was talking to the American people. Trump’s focus was always on Biden or the moderator, incessantly angling to get in a jab or a boast. The president’s demeanor never strayed from me-me-me.
Trump expressed zero empathy for the American families who have lost loved ones to COVID-19. He only bragged about how he has handled the pandemic, a claim eviscerated by the reality of more than 200,000 dead.
He railed against the election already underway, baselessly claiming massive fraud through mail-in ballots and willfully putting the foundation of our democracy at risk.
He showed not a shred of decency when Biden brought up his late son, Beau, instead using that moment to launch an attack on Biden’s other son, Hunter. It was heartless, and gutless. It was a sickening moment that would only excite the basest of Trump’s base, begging the question: What was the president trying to accomplish in this debate?
Nothing about his behavior will win him a single vote he didn’t already have locked down. So what’s the strategy?
Rile up his devoted base so they’re ripe for a post-presidency grift? Hope that his “rigged election” nonsense is enough to depress voting or open the door for a spurious legal challenge?
Or maybe there was simply no strategy. Maybe this is just Trump being the person people like me have told you he is all along.
One of the most telling moments of the night was moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News giving Trump a chance to “condemn white supremacists and militia groups” like the Proud Boys and tell them “they need to stand down.”
Trump replied: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.”
“Stand back and stand by” is not a condemnation. It’s a call to be ready for action. Trump’s own FBI director recently identified white supremacists groups as the largest domestic terrorist threat the country is facing. Trump doesn’t care.
And naturally, the Proud Boys lit up social media after Trump’s debate comment, celebrating what they saw as a call to arms ... FROM THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.
It’s unreal. You can criticize Biden for some of his weaker responses to questions regarding the Supreme Court or the filibuster or his plans for climate change. But you cannot compare the two men who were on that stage in Ohio in terms of demeanor and basic human decency.
Trump was a terror, breaking the rules and showing the world America is helmed by a self-obsessed man-child. Biden at least tried to break through the noise and deliver a message to all Americans.
This was not a presidential debate. It was a vivid display of Trump’s inability to inhabit the role of president, and a shameful reminder of how perilously far he has stretched the limits of our democracy in only one term.
Rex Huppke is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.