There was occasionally no sound, but there was plenty of fury. Half of it was indeed a tall tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. (Well, nothing factual, anyway.) But when Trump was forced to stand silently, Americans did hear the other half… the truth. It is hard to imagine that many minds were changed by this debate… and that’s terrific news for Joe Biden.
Once, I was on an audio conference call with some very demanding clients, who at one point decided that they needed to talk among themselves. I heard the senior client’s voice as she leaned ominously into her end of the conference phone… “Steve, we are going to put you on moot.”
She meant “mute," but it may as well have been the “moot” button. It’s the button that means “nothing that you can say at this point will make any difference.”
Last night, the Commission on Presidential Debates courageously pressed the “mute” button on Donald Trump, becoming one of the few institutions with the guts to demand that the President follow the rules. In an administration that has repeatedly demonstrated its contempt for adhering to Constitutional principles, important custom, and even routine law, the Commission on President Debates stood up to Trump and made him accept their terms.
But the CPD may have pressed the “moot” button on Trump as well. By the time the evening was done, Joe Biden had once again held his ground, and nothing had changed… making Donald Trump’s desperate deceits increasingly irrelevant. The CNN “Instant Poll” had the evening 52 to 39 for Biden, which roughly mirrors current approval and preference attitudes toward the two candidates, indicating the few minds were changed.
Ironically, in some ways the “mute” button actually benefitted Trump. Instead of re-enacting his role as the screaming, impulse control-challenged “POTUS Interruptus” of the first debate, the mute button forced Trump to appear more civil. But at a different level, the mute button gave America a wide open, uninterrupted opportunity to listen to a proud, patriotic, and passionate Joe Biden tell the truth about our national nightmare and what we must do to fix it. Biden made the most of it.
Trump was stronger than he was in the first debate, but then again, that is setting the bar so low that light cannot pass beneath it. No doubt people living in the Fox bubble were thrilled to see Trump acting in a manner that was not utterly humiliating, and they will claim that Trump won. But the proof will be in whether Trump made any material progress in changing attitudes, and it is very hard to see how this debate changed anything.
Trump’s problem this time was not tonality and behavior, it was substance. When the audience at home could actually hear the candidates answer the questions, Trump’s responses amounted to a familiar journey through his phantasmagoria of alleged accomplishments, portraying a perversely inverted universe in which COVID-19 is vanquished, the economy is thriving, global admiration and respect for the United States is at its apex, and the current President is the “least racist person in the room,” who has “done more for Black Americans than any president with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln.”
Perhaps more to the point: the audience saw a man who was spending an enormous amount of his debate time trying to smear his rival. These broadsides – usually just so much unproven and unsupported gossip – gave Trump the stench of desperation.
Give Trump his due: he has the gall, the moral bankruptcy, and the bravado to take any topic and claim that his administration has done an “amazing” job, and that “nobody can believe what a great job we have done.” The diehard Trump supporter who has long since devoured the Kool-Aid was no doubt dazzled and impressed by Trump’s potpourri of exaggerations, distortions, and outright lies.
The informed listener, however hears it all for what it is. The classic example is when Trump tries to claim that if not for his brilliant handling of the coronavirus, two million Americans would be dead. That, to be clear, was the number of deaths that had been projected had the United States not taken a single measure at all to fight the virus: no masks, no social distancing, no shelter-in-place, no nothing. Trump asserted that his vaccine is coming and will be announced “within weeks,” and concluded his allotted two uninterrupted minutes on the coronavirus by saying “It will go away. And as I say, we’re rounding the turn. It’s going away.”
Trump nonchalantly flings such deceptions out, and watches as a polarized America reacts like an electromagnet: his base seizes on every word as gospel, and the Democratic/Liberal/Progressive community tears its hair out, violently repelled at the casual and callously corrupt manipulation. And no minds are changed.
For all his ability to concoct faux reality from thin air, Trump stumbled badly when attempting to articulate the imaginary healthcare plan that will be so much better than Obamacare. Even as he berated Biden for not accomplishing more during his years in Washington, Trump was left to tacitly acknowledge that his administration has never lived up to its promise to “repeal and replace Obamacare.” Consider this actual quote from last night, which seems interchangeable with words he used in 2016:
“What I would like to do is a much better healthcare, much better. We’ll always protect people with pre-existing. So I’d like to terminate Obamacare, come up with a brand new, beautiful healthcare.”
A particularly low moment of the evening came when Trump was confronted with the recent report that his inhumane policy of separating immigrant children from their families had resulting in over 450 children who could not be re-united with their parents. Trump attempted to justify this atrocity by saying, "they are so well taken care of. They're in facilities that were so clean," thereby managing to be both wildly deceitful and savagely lacking in human empathy in the same breath.
And, in the midst of a global pandemic, economy catastrophe, and racial divide, Trump wanted to spend as much time as possible on the topic nobody cares about: Hunter Biden, and the alleged corruption of the Biden family. Here is a moment he was asked a foreign policy question about interference in our elections… watch how fast he tries to change the topic, making this shameless and clumsy effort to slander Biden:
President Trump, same question to you. Let me ask the question. You’re going to have two minutes to respond. For two elections in a row now, there has been substantial interference from foreign adversaries. What would you do in your next term to put an end to this? Two minutes, uninterrupted.
Well, let me respond to the first part, as Joe answered. Joe got $3.5 million from Russia and it came through Putin, because he was very friendly with the former mayor of Moscow and it was the mayor of Moscow’s wife. And you got $3.5 million. Your family got $3.5 million. And someday you’re going to have to explain, why did you get three and a half? I never got any money from Russia. I don’t get money from Russia.
It is textbook Trump that will fascinate historians for the ages: the only way Trump knows how to deal with his own grievous liabilities and failings is to project those exact traits onto his political opponents. Basing the rationale for your re-election on the contention that Joe Biden is a corrupt politician stealing from the public till is sort of like accusing Andy of Mayberry of heroin trafficking.
In the first debate, content did not matter. First of all, no one could hear it, and no sentences ran their full measure to completion. The overwhelming and entire story of that first debate was the visual contrast between a crude, angry, boorish temper tantrum incarnate, and a decent man retaining his dignity in midst of a sewer back-up.
Last night, substance mattered, and Donald Trump played his hand of losing cards with only bluffing and bravado. But the cards stink, and bluffing is no substitute for mastery.
Trump’s reputation as a switchblade-wielding street fighter is well earned. He was relentless in attacking Biden on three fronts: (1) unproven allegations of corruption in Biden’s family, (2) bashing Biden for being a “politician,” a man who is promising to achieve things as President that he could not accomplish in the eight years of the Obama administration, and (3) advocating policies – specifically in COVID-19 and global warming – that will destroy the American economy.
Joe Biden had a solid night, though it was disappointing to see him fail to execute easy counter-punches, and to squander his own time by responding to many of the wild charges that Trump was tossing around.
When Trump repeatedly belittled Biden by saying how he had had eight years to get stuff done, and hadn’t accomplished anything, it would have been slick for Biden to respond, “if we didn’t get anything done, how come you’ve spent your entire administration trying to undo everything we did?”
But, face it, Joe Biden is not slick. His first instinct is not to come up with the perfect come-back or put up the best put-down. So, sure, he left a bunch of opportunities on the table, and he did waste precious moments defending his reputation against the improvised roadside devices Trump was throwing at his feet all night.
No, Joe Biden’s strength is when he leads from his emotion, his empathy, his compassion, and his urgent desire that the Unites States lead with decency, humanity, integrity, and principle.
Biden was surprisingly emotional at moments last night, and that’s when he was at his best… seething with outrage about Trump’s handling of immigrant children, firing back at Trump’s attempt to routinize the pandemic with ferocity: “he says that we’re learning to live with it. People are learning to die with it.” When Trump attempted to parse the coronavirus catastrophe into “Red” and “Blue” states, Biden turned to camera and explained what it means to be President of the United States:
“I’m running as a proud Democrat, but I’m going to be an American president. I don’t see red states and blue states. What I see is American United States. And folks, every single state out there finds themself in trouble. They’re going to start laying off, whether they’re red or blue, cops, firefighters, first responders, teachers, because they have to balance their budget.”
Perhaps we should all be happy that last night was not simply another episode of “America’s Got Humiliation,” and that if Trump supporters want to feel proud that their boy can lie with the best of them, God bless. Let’s also pause and give thanks to Kristen Welker, the moderator from NBC News, who did a solid job. Sure, there’s no doubt that she benefitted from the muzzle that the Commission on Presidential Debate placed on Trump, but she ran a tight ship.
At the end of this particular day, it’s a very good bet that no minds were changed. The supporters who have stuck with Trump through thick and thin from Charlottesville to shithole countries to children in cages to COVID-19 are not going to have their faith shaken by one more Trumpster fire of delusion.
It’s as if the Commission on Presidential Elections had pressed the “moot” button not simply on this debate, but on the entire campaign. A presidential debate with a huge audience may have been Trump’s last best shot to change the trajectory of this race, but don’t expect a single polling number or approval rating to change based on last night. Minds are made up. Attitudes are unshakable. All that is left is the voting, the counting, and the Republican attempts to cheat.
In the end, silence of the “mute” button was pivotal. At the most basic level, it made for a more civilized debate.
But on a more substantive level, the sound of silence was deafening. After four years of listening to this man try to shout louder than the truth, screaming to change the subject away from reality itself, and crudely running roughshod over anyone who dare oppose him, we suddenly saw what happens when the emperor has no microphone.
He had to stand back and allow the truth to be heard.
Call it POTUS interruptus… it is what happens when one of the most dishonest, corrupt, and soulless men ever to have walked the planet tries to continue his crude assault on the truth, and he is cut off.
Cut off because some gutsy people actually decided to enforce their rules. Some gutsy people decided that no one is above the law. Some gutsy people said enough is enough, and stood their ground.
And when they cut off his mic, people could finally hear the truth.
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