The notion that Donald Trump is a genius at using television can now be put to bed. That’s over.
In fact, all of us who watched the head-stomp of an alleged debate on Tuesday evening could use a good sleep. That was disturbing, exhausting and, for Trump, calamitous.
There are very basic rules for politicians who want to succeed on TV – show up looking confident, relaxed and smile occasionally. Trump couldn’t manage an ounce of it. Looking grim, scarily sour and sweaty, he oozed desperation. In terms of projecting confidence and leadership on TV, Joe Biden wiped the floor with him.
The tawdry details of the first U.S. presidential debate of 2020 will be unpacked and analyzed for weeks: Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacists and his insistence that the upcoming election will be fraudulent. There is so much to unpack. And yet, there isn’t. That was just gross.
Unexpectedly gross, because it turns out that Donald Trump has lost it, lost the knack for using the tropes of reality TV – conflict, exaggeration, grandiosity – to his advantage. Those tropes compel the audience if there’s a tincture of wit and humour thrown in. That’s the ingredient that gels with the audience.
The way it usually works, and Trump used to know this by instinct, is that “Donald Trump” is a sort of Wrestlemania character, dissing the opponents with insults less mature than the schoolyard variety, grinning all the time and barely restrained from a broad wink at the audience.
Four years ago it worked well, a provocative undermining of the stagey faux-pageantry of U.S. politics, as Trump wielded “Little Marco” for Marco Rubio and “Low Energy Jeb” for Jeb Bush in TV debates. Then “Crooked Hillary” stood him well and his reality-TV-style male buffoonery even exhausted Hillary Clinton by the last of 2016′s presidential debates.
If you looked at that 2016 narrative as a distant observer, it was entertaining and diverting. The only moment that was diverting in Tuesday’s whinge-binge was when Joe Biden cocked an eyebrow, smiled and said, “Will you shut up, man?”
He couldn’t shut up. It’s gone beyond that point. Trump was that guy; the bitter ex, the whiny, finger-pointing middle-manager, the loner who keeps interrupting other people to talk about himself. They used to make TV movies about this type of male character, the guy from whom the woman-in-jeopardy had to be saved.
The TV pundits didn’t talk about tropes and narratives after Tuesday’s debate. They talked about “decorum.” Well, on CNN, they talked about decorum and tut-tutted. Wolf Blitzer, with a face that would stop a clock, described the event as “chaotic” and declared, “I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the last debate between these two.” Jake Tapper conjured the air of a man who had smelled something really foul, and said, gravely, “It was a disgrace.”
That’s one way to put it. Chris Wallace was a terrible moderator, for sure. He, too, had some notion that decorum would be involved. Instead, he ended up bleating, practically begging Trump to stop interrupting and, you know, act presidential. Instead, he faced a figure more like a petulant five-year-old on a sugar high who really, really needed to be put to bed.
On Fox News, which Wallace calls home, they took the view that Joe Biden was “on the defensive.” Anchor Martha MacCallum, who has never met a Democrat who didn’t cause her to frown, encouraged pundits to look for the positives in Trump’s performance. It was as comical as Fox News gets these days.
Fact is, Trump has lost his flair and aptitude for dominating on television. What served him well, that savvy for blustery, bickering animosity, has evaporated. The name-calling and mud-slinging that was once novel and decorum-destroying and, somehow, authentic to some voters, has been replaced by bitter and banal petulance.
Now, the experience of watching him in a debate is like being badgered by a crackhead on the street. It’s so, so over and there is almost a grim poignancy to it.
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