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The Desperation of Donald Trump

His unhinged debate performance is a sign that he knows he’s losing.

Illustration by James Steinberg

Believe it or not, there once was a time when high-minded thinkers believed that presidential debates would elevate the tenor and add substance to presidential campaigns.

Needless to say, these 1960s intellectuals, even in their most dystopian moments, never imagined a president like Donald J. Trump.

This was the Fyre Festival of presidential debates. Moderator Chris Wallace repeatedly lost control of the proceedings—and has been rightly faulted for not doing more to restrain Trump. But in Wallace’s defense, even a lion tamer with a whip and a chair would have had a hard time dealing with Trump, who seemed, for much of the evening, to be auditioning for a starring role in Raging Bull.

Trump entered the debate with a stunning gender gap of 31 points in the latest national Washington Post-ABC News poll. After he stomped and snorted, interrupted and interjected for a full 90 painful minutes, that chasm probably grew to the size of the San Andreas Fault in the middle of a killer earthquake.

In political terms, it is hard to fathom what Trump was thinking. Behind in the polls, he did nothing to reassure wavering voters or win back Republicans who had abandoned him.

He wouldn’t have needed to do much, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. Asked to condemn white supremacists, the president was suddenly tongue-tied. Rather than rejecting the hate-mongering Proud Boys, Trump told them to “stand back” and then menacingly added, “Stand by.”

Joe Biden, who clearly was trying to follow a debate strategy of laughing his way through Trump’s antics, periodically lost it during the president’s sewer-dwelling serenades. At one point, Biden spoke for nearly everyone who had hoped for a remotely dignified debate when he said to Trump, “Would you shut up, man?”

Remember that Biden came of age in the Senate of the 1970s, where even segregationist senators maintained surface courtesies and sometimes displayed personal kindness. Biden, the former seven-term senator, always showed respect for the office of the president, even when the incumbent was Richard Nixon.

Even just a few years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine Biden saying “Would you shush?” to a sitting president, or calling him “Donald” rather than Mr. President in a formal public setting.

But like most of us, Biden suffers from PTSD. That is, Post-Trump Stress Disorder.

Everything about Biden’s prior comments and record indicates that he dreams of bringing civility and honor back to American life as president. Yet even Biden seems to be realizing that Trump may have poisoned American discourse for decades.

That’s why it was telling that Biden refused to answer a question about whether he would push to end the filibuster and add justices to the Supreme Court if elected.

For nervous Democrats, the most important aspect of the debate was that Biden was fine. Granted, he was not apt to make anyone forget Demosthenes—or even Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. And, yes, Biden stumbled over his words occasionally. But there was never a news clip that vindicated Trump’s worst attacks on Biden as doddering or unable to string together a coherent argument.

In fact, Trump periodically grew frustrated at Biden’s refusal to embrace the end of private health insurance or all the provisions of a Green New Deal. Several times, as though he were reading along from an internal strategy memo, Trump said, “You just lost the left.”

Wallace’s crippling passivity allowed Trump to wiggle out of a question about the ironclad New York Times report that the president only paid $750 in taxes in 2016 and 2017. And rather than making $750 the most famous number in politics since Jared Kushner lost money owning 666 Fifth Avenue, Biden barely referred to it.

His failure to land a punch probably won’t matter in the long run. Trump’s real enemy in this campaign is time, not Biden. Every day that Trump doesn’t score a major breakthrough is a good day for Biden. With millions of Americans voting and the election less than five weeks away, it is becoming hard to imagine how Trump changes the contours of the race.

There is always a cautionary note with major campaign events—wait a few days for the dust to settle before drawing lasting conclusions about its political impact. Overnight polling and TV focus groups are notoriously unreliable, even when they reach conclusions that are politically pleasing. And often the effects of a debate are enhanced through repetition via news clips and morning-after commentary.

What is unequivocal, though, is the sheer desperate ugliness of Trump’s performance.

I am old enough to have watched—as boy and man—every fall presidential debate since John Kennedy went up against Richard Nixon and his five o’clock shadow in 1960. And never have I witnessed a guttersnipe, bully-boy performance like Trump’s on the debate stage.

I grieved for American democracy Tuesday night. And I am frightened by the specter of two more presidential debates as moderators insist on playing by rules of civil discourse in the face of Trump the Termagant.