There was a stunning revelation in Thursday night’s U.S. presidential TV debate: Donald Trump can feign composure for about one hour and 15 minutes. After that he begins to say thing like, oh, just as an example, “I know more about wind than you do. It’s extremely expensive. Kills all the birds.”
Expressing pity for birds who live in existential dread of windmills is an odd political gambit. Possibly there’s polling now showing a slight uptick in Trump support among pigeon-fanciers, a notoriously prickly constituency. If there is such an uptick, Fox News will be all over it.
It was an odd TV event, inevitably anticlimactic after the bedlam of the first debate and the duelling TV townhalls of last week. It was just like old times in American politics – the ritual TV meeting of two older men to talk stock phrases at each other and at the watching audience. It all proceeded with the creaky ceremoniousness of phony pomp that, in American politics, passes for tradition. Another throwback to an earlier time was the in-charge moderator.
That was Kristen Welker, White House correspondent for NBC News. In recent days Trump has referred to her as “biased”, “unfair”, “no good,” “crooked,” “terrible” and “totally partisan.” The fact that he didn’t attack her in such terms at the debate will lead some people to call his TV performance presidential, which is as risible as his sympathy for the windmill-victim birds of the air.
Trump entered the TV debate arena at a disadvantage, as the majority of polls attest, and he needed to gain ground for himself and diminish Joe Biden. For 75 minutes he faked constraint and to him, and him only, plus his pals at Fox News, he was the superior figure.
Here’s the thing: for the 2016 campaign Trump modelled his TV style and demeanour on a version of himself, the billionaire businessman Donald Trump who starred on The Apprentice. For most of this 2020 campaign he has, strangely, modelled himself on Roseanne Barr. He has cackled, shouted, berated, interrupted and glared. His tactic has been to troll his opponent, his opponent’s family and the media.
We all know what happened to Roseanne Barr. On her revived show, a series cited as Trump-era TV, her character died and the real Roseanne Barr hasn’t been heard from since. One of her last public utterances, after ABC fired her for racist online comments, was to tell the New York Post, “I’m a troll. I’m the queen of the trolls.”
Trump’s TV strategy – a medium he’s proud of understanding with aplomb – up to and including Thursday’s debate, isn’t designed to appeal to his base or undecided voters. It’s designed for an audience of one: Donald Trump. A self-admiring showboat, ruthlessly self-absorbed, obsessed with power and an online bully, his showmanship is now threadbare. It’s washed out.
Under the surface of that feigned constraint, he was merely rambling about his COVID-19 response. Apparently a vaccine is mere weeks away, to be distributed by the military. (If not, presumably by that king of year-end delivery, Santa Claus.) He has bizarre untruths about health care and even more bizarre opinions on immigration policy. What he did was jumbled bloviating. And, you know, it’s funny how you can have the word “bloviating” in your vocabulary and have no use for it until you witness Trump talk publicly about his triumphs.
About 76 minutes into the event, Joe Biden finally said what needed to be said: “Oh God.” Of course, it came out as “Oh gawd!” and served to answer Biden’s own rhetorical question to American voters about the issue of character. That question could be paraphrased as, "Who among you can listen to this gibberish without saying “Oh gawd”? At the time of the “Oh gawd” utterance, Trump had been bloviating about “the laptop.”
And thereby hangs a tale known mainly to Fox News viewers. Following on the baffling story about Hunter Biden’s laptop being found in a computer repair store in a strip mall somewhere, the debate was preceded by a fella named Tony Bobulinski giving a news conference in which he waved around three phones and claimed they contained evidence about Biden family foreign dealings and implicated Joe Biden in some shenanigans.
Only Fox carried the news conference. CNN and MSNBC ignored it, and little wonder. Bobulinski refused to take questions and looked nervous.
But that was meant to be Trump’s ace in the debate – corrupt Joe Biden as revealed in some guy’s old phone or some other guy’s old laptop. As a dramatic twist it was pathetic. The debate was barely over when the Wall Street Journal debunked the Bobulinski reveal.
Even while trying to appear composed, Trump looked like a righteous indignation machine against some strange force known only to him. It got comical. Joe Biden jokingly referred to Trump as “Abraham Lincoln over here” and Trump blusteringly clarified that he is not, in fact, Abraham Lincoln.
The old Trump on TV would never fall into that trap. But the old Trump is gone. There is still the walkout drama of his 60 Minutes interview to come, but Trumpism as we know it, is over. There is only so long you can fake anything on TV. He had a good run.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.