Donald Trump is a desperate liar, an embryonic fascist, and anywhere from seven to ten points down nationwide—a 1964-like gap in an era of previously razor’s-edge results. He was obviously not preparing for the debate, because like anti-matter is to matter, Trump is anti-substance to substance. To paraphrase the Cheshire Cat, if it doesn’t matter where your words are going, then it doesn’t matter where your words go.
And yet the night was stunning in revealing just how perilous this American moment is. Trump lives in his very own reality distortion field, a shell that truth, logic, reason, empathy, and grace cannot penetrate. Every word out of his mouth is a lie. He generates only fear and rage and hate, and is loved only by those who love fear, rage, and hate. He is incapable of anything resembling coherency, and is thus loved by the incoherent.
Trump’s manipulations become ever more toxic and dangerous. Everything his followers claim to love about America—conservative judges, the Founders, guns, nuclear families—he is holding hostage over their heads, insisting that to save them, they must save him. Of course, the converse is true as well. In order to save some semblance of America from him, he dares his opponents to shoot the hostages.
At some point, this Hobson’s choice may have been some kind of intellectual struggle, but now the choice is abundantly clear: Shoot the hostages. And if the American experiment has indeed created Donald Trump, then the American experiment should be shot like Old Yeller.
Tonight, the failure of the American republic presented itself in living color. Trump’s strategy, as usual, was to present as the apogee of toxic masculinity, the better to connect with his uneducated white male base. And if Trump had only been executing a strategy to put Biden off his game in the early moments, he may have gotten away with it. Biden started his own answers slowly and carefully, and though the Trump campaign’s constant harping on Biden’s alleged insenility is obviously an invention, it has the natural effect of magnifying everything Biden does or says on stage.
But Trump is not executing a strategy. Trump is being himself—a stupid, malignant, narcissistic bully who gets off on being the dominant in the room. This tends to work when he’s surrounded by submissive MAGAs wearing ideological leather and chains, but less so in an empty room where the evening’s premise is less animal attraction and more interchange of ideas. It works even less well when it manifests in virulent anarchy, such as calling on white supremacists to arm themselves and “stand by.”
There may or may not be two more of these monstrous opportunities for abuse. Trump’s revolting performance may have been a ruse to force Biden to drop out of the last two debates, or a pretext for Trump to do the same. Either would be preferable to rehashing yet another political Friday the 13th sequel.
There are few silver linings here. One is that if it is true that Everything Trump Touches Dies, as Lincoln Project strategist Rick Wilson has said, the whole concept of debates is a deserving victim. Biden should announce he is scratching the remaining 2020 debates because he won’t share the stage with a candidate who uses a free national platform to advocate white supremacist violence. But it is unclear that the Republican Party is deserving of such a platform in the future, as its only platform appears to be ritualized abuse.
Indeed, the other deserving euthanasia candidate here is the Republican Party, which sponsors and enables Trump’s ongoing insanity. It is true that the Republican Party’s collapse augurs no small ill for America, but its traditional purpose was to moderate factionalism. Now that it has weaponized factionalism, it will have to be deconstructed.
Was there any good news last night? Well, TV’s Frank retweeted me. If anything was worth the months of therapy just ten minutes of exposing myself to Donald Trump will require, it was that.