“Listen to this,” Donald Trump said at one point during the final debate of the presidential season against Joe Biden. He said it like he was about to tell a secret, like he was about to blow your mind. What was he about to say? Was it a plan to fight the coronavirus pandemic that is getting dramatically worse in America? Was it the healthcare plan he promised in two weeks…three months ago? Was it anything approximating common sense?
Of course not. It was some more nonsense about the former vice president’s son, Hunter Biden, and his “emails—the horrible emails.”
That more or less characterized the second and—mercifully, the last—debate before Election Day. Yes, the debate rules, with the mics muted at times to prevent the Trump outbursts that sabotaged the first contest, led to a more subdued performance. And, by not sounding like a broken car alarm wailing for 90 minutes straight, he cleared the low bar he set for himself last time. Big deal. Trump may not have been able to interrupt Biden, but it didn’t stop him from saying the same tired, patently false nonsense he spouts on Twitter every single day.
The coronavirus pandemic? It’s going away.
His apparently damning tax returns? He’ll release them as soon as he’s done with this endless audit he claims, falsely, has prevented their release since the 2016 election.
Healthcare? His plan will protect people with preexisting conditions and it’ll be “beautiful” and it’ll be done soon.
When will that be? Who knows. Maybe when he releases his taxes.
Trump’s interruption strategy in the first debate was a testament to his paucity of ideas; his more straightforward debate Thursday evening was an affirmation of it. Indeed, the final debate not only proved Trump unable to do anything but lie—it proved him unable to even come up with new lies to tell. “There has been nobody tougher than me on Russia.” Come on, man. “I do love the environment,” Trump said later in the debate. “What I want is the cleanest, crystal clear water, the cleanest air.” Get out of here.“We’re fighting [COVID], and we’re fighting it hard.” Get real. The United States never got the pandemic under control, and it’s starting to get even worse.
Yelling or not, Trump only has about five or six things to say when you pull the string on his back, and none are particularly impressive or interesting—let alone truthful or presidential. No matter what he was asked by Kristen Welker, who turned in a strong performance as moderator, Trump managed to steer back to one of his played-out greatest hits. “Nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump,” he said, carving out a “possible” exception for Abraham Lincoln. Biden is a “corrupt” politician,” whose son is in possession of the “laptop from hell,” Trump said at another point. “I am the least racist person in this room,” he said in a room that included a host of Black and Native American ancestry.
Welker, for her part, did an impressive job, exerting far more control over the candidates than Fox’s Chris Wallace did in the first episode of this reality show. The format kept Trump from talking over everyone else, but it was the authoritative moderator who held the line. Biden, too, carried himself well, rebutting the president’s most egregious lies while delivering some righteous attack lines of his own. When Trump falsely accused Biden of terming him xenophobic for limiting travel from China at the beginning of the pandemic, Biden replied: “He is xenophobic, but not because he shut down China.” When Trump tried to fearmonger about the more progressive figures in Biden’s party, the Democrat shot back: “He’s a very confused guy. He thinks he’s running against somebody else.” And when Trump repeated his idiotic “I’m the least racist” line, Biden reminded him, among other things, of his steadfast refusal to condemn white supremacists: “He pours fuel on every single racist fire,” Biden said. “This guy is a dog whistle about as big as a fog horn.”
That about summed up the Biden line. For the former vice president, the election remains, at its core, about decency. Biden will never be as progressive as progressives in his party want, and he’ll never be as moderate as the Republicans who are pulling the lever for him will like—and no policy answer he gave Thursday will change that. But what also won’t change is that he represents a thoroughly normal, adult, and steady version of the presidency. “What is on the ballot here,” Biden said in his closing remarks, “is the character of the country.” Trump did not do anything to suggest he’s capable of embodying anything close to that. His fixation with Hunter Biden made that clear. With 400,000 Americans projected to die of COVID-19 by the year’s end, and the nation in the midst of a racial reckoning, and environmental, social, and political crises roiling the country, the biggest issue, in his telling, is Biden’s son and the “laptop from hell.”
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