For more than four years—ever since it became clear that Donald Trump would actually be the Republican nominee for president—pundits have fixated on one question: Is Donald Trump about to pivot to normalcy? Will he, at long last, stop behaving like a maniac and start acting like a president? Couldn’t he, at the very least, stop live-tweeting television 14 hours a day? Is it coming, the pivot?
The fastest way to make a fool of yourself in media in recent years was to proclaim that, at long last, Trump had pivoted. Van Jones set the standard when he declared that Trump “became President of the United States” after his first State of the Union, a deranged speech that got over because it was delivered in something approximating a Dilaudid haze, the president imitating calmness as if he’d taken a YouTube tutorial on the subject a half-hour before he went on camera.
Numerous others followed in Jones’s wake. In the fall of 2017, The New York Times’ Peter Baker wrote that Trump “is, in many ways, the first independent to hold the presidency since the advent of the current two-party system around the time of the Civil War.” Axios’s Mike Allen, like many of his ilk, declared that chief of staff John Kelly would bring some order and discipline to the West Wing. “Trump’s exposure to populist nationalism is now close to zero,” Allen confidently wrote. The Covid-19 crisis has brought a number of these takes—“Trump changes his tone, gets real on the coronavirus threat,” read one Associated Press headline, while CNN’s Dana Bash took time to “applaud” a shift to a “tone of calm and understanding” that people “yearn for in times of crisis and uncertainty.” That’s a lot of human wreckage.
The idea of a Trump pivot was always absurd—the only constant about Donald Trump is that he never changes; he can’t begin to fathom why he would ever do such a thing—but it served as an important security blanket for pundits. Trump’s abnormalcy was an affront to their sense of decorum and their sense of themselves as supreme knowers of American politics. There are rules, after all! And the rules say you must pivot! As Jay Rosen noted about the press when he explained how they create “Trump normalization”: “What they have to report brings ruin to what they have to respect. So they occasionally revise it into something they can respect: at least a little.”
And yet, ahead of Thursday’s debate, there were still questions about a pivot finally arriving. NBC News’s Alex Seitz-Wald noted that many Trump advisers wanted a disciplined performance and hoped the debate would mark a “new tone” for the president: “Working in Trump’s favor is that expectations for his performance could hardly be lower, so even a modicum more restraint, focus, and substance are likely to receive positive reviews.” It’s basically the same play Trump ran during that first State of the Union.
It also, depressingly, may very well work in the same way. Trump, still hoarse from his bout with Covid-19, was much less rabid than in his deranged first debate performance. Baker, blogging for the Times, praised Trump for “sounding calm and measured compared to last time.” Bash observed that “Donald Trump listened to his advisers this time,” while CNN’s chyron noted, “TRUMP TAKES A LESS COMBATIVE APPROACH.” Axios strived for balance, writing, “A more disciplined President Trump held back from the rowdy interruptions at tonight’s debate in Nashville, while making some assertions so outlandish that Joe Biden chuckled and even closed his eyes.” The Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter tweeted that Trump was “very disciplined tonight,” and asked the question to which time and experience should have already provided an answer: “Can this hold for 10–11 more days?”
Gee, I wonder! With Trump setting the bar for himself at a subterranean level, his defenders may very well be joined by the pundit class in applauding him for—mostly—showing a modicum of strained discipline. Credit for the calmed tone might have been better given to the overdue decision to add a mute button to the candidates’ microphones, though the effectiveness of this innovation seemed to curiously wane as the night went on. Nevertheless, there was some strategy in play—Trump’s allies have wanted the president to sit back and let Biden ramble, cementing the campaign’s message that the former vice president is barely cogent, suffering from late-stage dementia.
But the truth is that while Trump didn’t foam at the mouth, his performance was still pathological. He lied about everything. He suggested that a vaccine would be ready in a matter of “weeks”—something he has been saying for months. He said he would release his tax returns soon—something he has been saying for more than four years. He suggested that the Mueller investigation looked at his tax returns and found no wrongdoing, something that never happened. He claimed his administration had a health care plan ready to go, should Obamacare be repealed. He said that Biden would abolish private health insurance and raise taxes for millions. He said, again and again, that his administration had done a terrific job slowing down the pandemic, saving millions of lives. As CNN’s resident rapid-fire fact-checker Daniel Dale tweeted, “From a lying perspective, Trump is even worse tonight than in the first debate.”
From a moral perspective, he was also just as bad. The president had nothing to say to families who had lost loved ones to Covid-19. He shrugged off his administration’s child separation policy, even saying it had done a “good” job by only being unable to reunite 500 children with their parents. He returned again and again to unproven claims about Joe Biden’s son’s dealings in Ukraine, Russia, and China—while lying about his own deep, well-established financial ties to foreign countries.
Trump’s allies were hopeful that the debate format—and a somewhat calmer Trump—would help resuscitate the president’s flatlining campaign. But Biden was sharper than Trump might have hoped at the outset of the night, slipping up only as the evening waned and entropy had started to reassert itself. Trump, meanwhile, was rambling and defensive, projecting his own sins onto the former vice president: accusing him of being corrupt, a liar, a failure, a disaster, a do-nothing politician who spends all his time sitting around the house. The president attempted to walk a tightrope between casting himself as an outsider—unlike Biden, he was “not a politician,” he repeatedly explained—while also trying to earn those “new tone” plaudits: the ultimate career-politician move.
From the beginning, the problem with all the “new tone” talk was that it was always rooted in aesthetics. There was a flicker of a notion that if Trump could, somehow, start aping Michael Douglas in The American President or something, then a sense of presidentness would necessarily attach itself to him. The frantic pivot-mongers, forever on their bullshit, always disregarded who Trump actually is, that the rot in his character is deep, that he’s a congenital liar, a horrible human being, a “blank sucking nullity.” The problem with Trump’s performance in the first debate wasn’t actually that he interrupted Biden a lot, it was what he used those interruptions to say: the actual ideas he expressed. Pundits have insisted that if Trump could act differently, he could govern differently, as if he could somehow set himself aside. But Trump’s style and his substance are intertwined—something that was abundantly clear in the second debate, a vicious cavalcade of dishonor and dishonesty. That he delivered his lines with a comparative quietude was just part of the lie.
Still, there is something to commemorate here. There are less than two weeks until the presidential election. Tonight was the last opportunity for the new Trump, with a new tone, to finally make his appearance. If he loses in two weeks, his tone ceases to matter; if he wins, it will matter even less. For a brief time tonight, he offered fewer interruptions. For a strained evening, he managed to keep his decibel level low. But for these stylistic quirks, worn like an ill-fitting suit—surprise—we got the same old Trump. The president may cull a few brownie points from the same pathetic, beaten-down pundits for this performance, but anyone who praises him will be made to look foolish by Saturday afternoon. Don’t be that guy. Take my advice and let this dumb media trope die a deserved, ignoble death.