Petulant, Annoying, Repulsive, Dismal
On the question of whether Donald Trump is a sinister mastermind or an incompetent scumbag (not mutually exclusive), last night’s debate will have to register in the scumbag column. His constant interruptions, vanity, self-pity and frequent forays into lies and nonsense are all by this point wearyingly familiar. Of course, Trump has been consistently underestimated since he entered politics, and his supporters no doubt enjoyed the petulant way he dominated proceedings. But his abuse of Biden was a far cry from the humiliations to which he subjected his opponents in the 2016 GOP primary debates. The show has gotten old.
A CBS News poll found that most viewers had a negative reaction to the event, with ‘annoying’ being the most common descriptor. Trump is a phenomenon created by television and abetted by social media; the path to his demise will be paved with low ratings. Liberals have always found him repulsive. The question is when the rest of the voters will get tired of him.
Against any other opponent, Joe Biden’s performance would have been dismal. In the face of Trump’s onslaught, he didn’t embarrass himself too badly, wasn’t too doddering, and perhaps got a few points across. He wants to preserve and expand Obamacare, and he won’t take away anyone’s private health insurance. He intends to fight climate change but won’t go so far as to enact the Green New Deal. He thinks perpetrators of street violence should be prosecuted. He had one son, Beau, who was an American hero, and has another who has struggled with a drug problem but isn’t as corrupt as Trump says he is. It must be frustrating for a Democratic politician who has spent his career pandering to the right to be accused of being beholden to the ‘radical left’. When Trump said, ‘Your party wants socialist medicine and socialist healthcare,’ Biden replied: ‘The party is me. Right now, I am the Democratic Party.’
That moment, early on, may have been the most significant of the night. It represented a line of attack different from the one Trump pursued against Clinton – that she embodied a corrupt establishment that had sold out American workers and mired the country in endless wars –and was easily refuted by Biden because it simply isn’t true. The narrative advanced daily by Fox News, and by Trump at his rallies, is that Biden is a Trojan horse for a radical cabal that has unleashed chaos on the streets of America’s cities – violence covered up by the mainstream media as ‘mostly peaceful protests’. ‘They’re going to dominate you, Joe,’ Trump said last night. ‘You know that.’ In fact, Biden knows that the left faction in the Democratic coalition has been tamed. The prospect of its defection to Trump – ‘You just lost the left,’ Trump suggested a couple of times when Biden asserted his centrism – is nil.
Trump himself has accomplished a takeover of the Republican Party. He bought off the Republicans in Congress with tax cuts, right-wing judicial nominees and deregulation. He has little else to offer them but more of the same, and so his tactics against Biden have become increasingly desperate. The question ‘Is Trump a racist?’ – still a standby of most commentary on the president – is beside the point: his rhetoric lately on immigration and violence coming to the suburbs has tipped into neo-segregationism. He dips into conspiracy theory and casts doubts on the legitimacy of the upcoming election. This is the behaviour of someone running scared.
There are many reasons to believe the Republicans have given up on their president. If they were serious about winning, why didn’t they pursue a second bail-out for the millions of Americans who have been put out of work – and are now being put out of their homes – by the pandemic? Trump seems to think that portraying the election as a contest between the (uncondemned) Proud Boys and Antifa (more an idea than an organisation, according to the FBI, as Biden pointed out) gives him a chance at a second term. Who will fish the stolen ballots out of the rivers and creeks? Stand back and stand by.