Having had a night to sleep on it – and sleep very soundly – I’m much closer to what I said was the downside possibility for the President: not just a missed opportunity but a self-immolation. This was truly the worst of Trump: racist, belligerent, angry, unstable. I’ll give the man his due. Trump can be if not funny then jocular, entertaining in a predatory, roguish way. Last night had none of that. It was pure id and an id under threat.
Beyond all the individual offenses one of the underrated sub-themes of anti-Trumpism is exhaustion. One of the deepest traumas of living in the home of an abuser stems not from the outbursts of physical violence, verbal abuse or manipulation but the accumulated stress of ambient tension, uncertainty, the reflexive, unshakeable hyper-vigilance. It is exhausting in a profound way. Trump is exhausting – I suspect even for some who share his dark values. This was 90 minutes jam-packed with everything that makes Trump exhausting. Living with an abuser means being trapped in close quarters with the abuse, being unable to run. In a month voters get the chance to walk away.
There’s been some chatter about the final two debates being canceled. I can’t imagine that’s going to happen or in whose interest it would be to make it happen. Neither campaign has any interest in doing that. The organizers have no interest in it. That’s not going to happen. But the President has put himself in a box.
Incumbents often have a bad first debate. They’ve been cocooned, insulated from criticism and the rigors of campaigns. Surrounded by supporters they start thinking they’re better than they are and go light on preparation. The challenger has been debating for more than a year. But that mostly means they’re not quick on their feet, prepared. They can get more prepared, more rhetorically limber for the second and third rounds. Getting angrier and more feral seems unlikely to help the President since we’re likely to spend two weeks talking about his unhinged behavior. The next candidate debate is also the town hall format with voter questions – a format that is never friendly to aggressive candidates. It’s also Biden’s best format.
But getting more normal is similarly out of reach. Here character really is destiny. This is who Trump is. It is especially who he is under threat. His campaign is about nudging undecided voters into fears about general social disorder and frighteningly assertive black and brown people. He ended up embracing white nationalist militias and saying they were necessary to crush the left in the streets. He yelled what it supposed to be implicit.
The most important thing remains that Trump had to shift things in his favor and he failed. Since he’s already losing that’s a big loss. I suspect it was even worse for him. Maybe a turning point.