At Tuesday’s debate, Donald Trump aimed his performance squarely at his base. Instead of trying to persuade swing voters that he is not, as Biden has alleged, a lawless and divisive demagogue, the president flouted the debate’s rules to incessantly heckle his opponent. Rather than reprising the themes of the Republican National Convention, at which a staid and sleepy Trump recited a long list of inoffensive-sounding, small-bore policy achievements, the president leaned heavily into caustic personal attacks, ridiculing Biden for having a son who’s struggled with substance-abuse problems. Instead of pairing his allegations of Biden’s supposed softness on “antifa” with full-throated condemnations of far-right militias, Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand by,” before instructing his supporters to engage in voter intimidation on Election Day. And all throughout, the president peppered his remarks with shorthand references to Fox News stories that were wholly inscrutable to the non-cable-news-addict public.
These were baffling choices. But they were of a piece with the president’s broader campaign, which has consistently fretted over maintaining the enthusiasm of conservative voters who are (1) already enthused, and (2) not nearly numerous enough to renew Trump’s lease on the White House by themselves.
Nevertheless, the president’s narrowcasting Tuesday night seemed to fail on its own terms, as a variety of conservative voters, operatives, and commentators gave his performance poor-to-middling reviews.
At a debate watch party for Trump supporters in Lititz, Pennsylvania, attendees who spoke with BuzzFeed News described the debate as a “mess.” And more than a few held their candidate at least partly responsible:
“I think that the American people were greatly disserved tonight by the lack of civility between both gentlemen,” said Joseph Madagan of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, who attended the watch party here during Tuesday night’s presidential debate. “The over-talking was unproductive, and was, I believe, certainly counterproductive.”
… “I was praying,” said Betty Rosales, who had been clutching her head as she looked onto the two jumbo screens on stage. “I expected it to be heated but not to the extent that it was. I’m disappointed as an American voter.”
Rosales told BuzzFeed News she loves the president and does hope he wins, but she thought “there were times he went overboard.”
A Trump backer in GOP pollster Frank Luntz’s focus group, meanwhile, admitted that “Trump is annoying, he’s unpresidential.”
At another pro-Trump watch party in Scranton, die-hard conservatives conceded to Yahoo News that Biden was less senile than expected, and that “Nobody really won.”
The right-wing commentariat was similarly unenthused. The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway — one of the foremost apologists for Trump’s malfeasance on the planet — lamented that the president had “missed opportunities to explain his successes, whether on regulatory reform, killing bad guys, border control, or peace deals.”
Reactionary blogger and radio host Erick Erickson was more scathing, tweeting, “Guys, come on, I realize if you’re a Trump supporter you think he won, but trying to filibuster over everyone else and tell the Proud Boys to stand by and not wanting to explicitly denounce white supremacists was not winning.”
The New York Post’s resident authoritarian theocrat Sohrab Ahmari felt compelled to reiterate that he is not pro-Trump so much as anti-anti-Trump.
But the night’s most damning assessment may have been Scott Adams’s. The “Dilbert” creator has spent the past four years testifying to Trump’s nigh-supernatural political gifts, filling his blog with sentences like, “Trump might be the most persuasive person I have ever observed in the act of persuading.”
On Tuesday night, all he could muster was this:
Those tasked with helping Republicans win elections this November were more transparently perturbed. As the the Daily Beast reported:
Reached for comment late Tuesday night, Ed Rollins, a veteran GOP strategist who fronts the pro-Trump group Great America PAC, simply responded, “Wow. I have seen nothing like this ever. Don’t want to comment any further.” Asked if the president did a good job or not, Rollins would only reply, “No comment.”
Even the Trump supporter-in-chief appeared less-than-confident in his showing. Instead of spending Wednesday morning boasting of his great victory, the president mostly just griped about how the contest was (supposedly) rigged against him.
As of now, it’s looking like the first week in November will bring more of the same.