Donald Trump went into the final debate of the 2020 campaign needing a clear win and even more than that, needing to defend his record as president in clear, comprehensible language. His signal mistake in the first debate, I argued at the time, was to lapse into the right-wing code language of Fox News/Breitbart conspiracy theories, which almost certainly sounded like gibberish to the low-information undecided voters whose support is his only hope of victory.
In the Nashville debate, Trump started off doing exactly what he needed to do: defending his record on handling COVID-19 in complete sentences, with a bit of counter-punching against Biden’s criticisms (though the former veep’s “He said people are learning to live with it … they’re learning to die with it” line was unanswerable, and Trump’s pandemic record is tough to defend).
The president’s self-discipline began unraveling when he seized his first opportunity to bring up the Hunter Biden email story that has gotten right-wing media so excited. His reference to the Obama administration merely sending “pillows and sheets” to Ukraine is a fine old conservative media line, but Trump never explained it. The jibe about Hunter supposedly reserving “ten percent for the big man,” a reference to the latest allegations about Joe’s role in his son’s business dealings, was completely inscrutable to anyone who didn’t spend the entire day wallowing in the story. Later he alluded to the “laptop from hell,” again without any effort to explain the link to Hunter, as though he was counting on subtitles or footnotes.
In the middle section of the debate, Trump began overriding moderator Kristen Welker regularly. Then on the very dangerous topic of children being separated from their parents at the border, Trump just lost it, shouting repeatedly “Who built the cages, Joe!” I know a fair amount about immigration, and if I had no idea what the president was alluding to, how would an undecided voter who hasn’t made Stephen Miller his guru on these issues?
Towards the end of the debate, Trump found his bearings and hit Biden hard on crime policy, just as the Democrat was beginning to lose steam and some of his own coherence. But he may have spoiled the effect (if any) on Black voters with his bizarre repeated insistence that “I am the least racist person in this room.” Was he suggesting the Black moderator is racist? Or appealing to the white racists who think that it’s Black people who are the racists? Again, you could almost hear the cheers in a room full of people who are already wearing MAGA hats.
The ultimate moment of speaking in code for Trump was in his attack on Biden’s environmental proposals, which he triumphantly described – twice – as “AOC plus three!” I get the reference to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive congresswoman who is every conservative’s favorite demon-figure these days, but “plus three?” Is that a reference to the other members of the so-called “squad?” I don’t know, and neither did most viewers who aren’t already deep in the tank for the president.
The bottom line is that Trump had an unmistakable and unavoidable mission in this debate, which went beyond “not setting himself on fire,” as one commentator put it, and wasn’t accomplished even if he did score more points against Biden than Biden scored against him (which I don’t think he did). It was Trump’s last chance to make a case that his record entitles him to a second term, at a time when it’s really too late to make this a “choice” election where sowing doubts about his opponent will suffice. By this standard, Trump started out strong, but in the end he just could not help being himself and raving about things that will leave swing voters baffled and cold.