Nearly 50 million Americans have already voted. In national polls, Joe Biden leads Donald Trump by about 10 percentage points — and has held such a lead for weeks now. Credible pollsters show the Democratic nominee within striking distance in South Carolina and Kansas. In the improbable circumstance that polls are underestimating Trump’s support by the same amount they did four years ago, Biden would still win an Electoral College majority comfortably.
Which is to say: Barring a polling error of historic magnitude, Trump needs to mount a comeback of unprecedented proportions in the campaign’s final weeks. To pull that off, the president (probably) needed Joe Biden to implode at the final 2020 presidential debate. The primary reason why Trump “lost” Thursday night is, thus, that Biden made it through the proceedings without forgetting his own name, promising to make his son Hunter ambassador to China, or ripping open his shirt to reveal a giant tattoo of his hero, Mao Zedong. To the contrary, the former vice-president gave an uncharacteristically crisp performance, looking and sounding healthier than the slightly raspy and disconcertingly red man he stood beside.
But Trump didn’t just lose because Biden neglected to self-destruct. The president also lost as a result of his own shortcomings. Namely:
1) Trump is too immersed in the Fox News Cinematic Universe to communicate clearly with people who live outside of it.
Donald Trump consumes conservative media like it’s his job. In early September, while presiding over a pandemic and devastating wildfire season, the president told reporters that his attorney general was about to prosecute his Deep State enemies — and substantiated this claim by attributing it to various Fox News programs that had watched over the previous 24 hours. “I watched Liz McDonald,” Trump said, “She’s fantastic. I watched Fox Business. I watched Lou Dobbs last night, Sean Hannity last night, Tucker last night, Laura. I watched Fox & Friends in the morning.”
During the 2016 Republican primary, Trump’s media habits helped him form an intimate connection with the GOP base. The billionaire might have lived in material conditions more opulent than his supporters could ever imagine. But unlike every other candidate in that race, he and they both lived in the same alternate universe — the one where Barack Obama was a Marxist-Islamist, and marauding bands of “knockout gamers” terrorized America’s cities.
But in the 2020 general election, Trump needs to communicate with those who live outside the Fox News Cinematic Universe and are not acquainted with its deep mythology. And his self-assigned mission on Thursday night — to reengineer the 2016 campaign’s twist ending by introducing a hazily defined, email-centric corruption scandal into the mix — only pulled him further into the weeds of the far-right fever swamp. Hunter Biden’s “laptop from hell” has been a fixture of conservative media for weeks now. But unlike in 2016, the mainstream press has declined to take interest in the right’s ill-substantiated smear of this year’s Democratic nominee. This is in part because Hunter-gate is thin gruel, even for those used to consuming Rudy Giuliani’s cooking. Existing reports have made it clear that Hunter monetized his father’s name in shady ways. But, as the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday night — in a jab at its own opinion page — there is as yet no evidence that Joe Biden himself committed any corrupt acts.
All this left Donald Trump — a man not known for the cogency of his extemporaneous remarks — with a task akin to describing the fourth season finale of a surreal, largely plotless television show to a crowd of people who’d never heard of the series.
“You were getting a lot of money from Russia. They were paying you a lot of money,” Trump informed Biden. “But now, with what came out today, it’s even worse. All of the emails, the emails, the horrible emails, of the kind of money you were raking in … I think you owe an explanation to the American people, why is it, somebody just had a news conference a little while ago, who was essentially supposed to work with you and your family, but what he said was damning.”
Biden declined to provide the American people with an explanation of what in the hell Trump was talking about.
2) Trump claimed ownership of some of the GOP’s least popular policies for no reason.
One of Trump’s few genuine strengths as a Republican politician has been his nose for the party’s most odious economic ideas. In 2016, he made a point of disavowing the GOP’s orthodoxy on health care, public investment in infrastructure, and — occasionally — taxes on the wealthy. But on Thursday night, the president went out of his way to signal his opposition to a $15 minimum wage (an idea that two-thirds of voters support), his desire to “terminate” Obamacare (a policy only 20 percent of voters support), and his burning hatred for wind power (a feeling 80 percent of Republicans cannot relate to).
3) The fact that Trump lacks anything resembling human empathy led him to defend his administration orphaning 545 immigrant children — by emphasizing how clean their facilities were on the day of a photo op.
This week, lawyers tasked with reuniting migrant families who were deliberately broken up by the Trump administration revealed that they cannot locate the parents of 545 immigrant children. Confronted with this fact in a public forum, a normal human being — or even, a sociopath with a rudimentary understanding of normal human thought patterns — would recognize that a demonstration of sadness (if not outright contrition) would be in order. But such recognition is beyond Trump. Instead of communicating his heartbreak at an unintended side effect of his efforts to enforce the border — and vowing to do everything in his power to ensure these families are brought back together — he said the following:
I will say this, they went down, we brought reporters and everything: They are so well taken care of. They are in facilities that were so clean.
Many reporters mis-transcribed this quote, correcting Trump’s odd use of the past tense in that last sentence. But the president said “were.” He did not describe the condition of the facilities at present, but rather, how nice they looked on the day when his administration invited reporters down to take pictures.
It is possible that there are millions of moderate voters who want to support Donald Trump, but first needed to see him demonstrate his opposition to the wind power, commitment to deftly executing photo ops of migrant children he effectively orphaned, and make cryptic references to Hunter Biden’s laptop. But that doesn’t seem very likely.