American political debates began in 1858 with Abraham Lincoln taking on Stephen Douglas over the future of slavery. And 162 years later, in what will hopefully be the final debate of Donald Trump’s career, Lincoln again took center stage.
Trump, with the fact-free audacity that has characterized his entire career, claimed, “Nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump. If you look, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, possible exception, nobody has done what I’ve done.”
That boast had everything, from the use of the third person (“Donald Trump”) to the hedge for Lincoln (“possible exception”). Joe Biden, who rarely used humor Thursday night, could not resist a mocking comment: “Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history.”
The shorthand scoring for the debate is that Trump was on good behavior throughout much of it. His performance may not have met the standard of traditional good behavior, but it was far better than his bully-boy tactics in the first debate. For all the Trump epithets about “Sleepy Joe,” Biden was, for the most part, fine. And with Biden’s double-digit lead in the many national polls, a fine performance was probably all he needed.
At this late stage, much of the remaining uncertainty about the election revolves around turnout. There is some worry in the Biden camp about a decline in voter participation among young Black men, who are rightly cynical about politics and their future in the United States. So the subtext to the debate’s discussion of race was whether anything said would increase Black male turnout.
In a sense, the telling moment was a split-screen visual as Biden, in response to an adroit question from moderator Kristen Welker, acknowledged the “institutional racism” in American society. The former vice president lamented that Black parents—no matter how rich—had to instruct their children on how to behave in front of the police.
Trump’s response was to glower all through Biden’s answer, in a moment that reveals all you need to know about the president’s true feelings on the issue, no matter how many times he claims to be a twenty-first-century Lincoln.
Equally telling was Trump’s response to a question about Black Lives Matter. In a moment that was halfway between obtuse and provocative, even by Trump’s standards, the president said, “The first time I ever heard of Black Lives Matter, they were chanting ‘Pigs in a blanket,’ talking about police.… ‘Pigs in a blanket. Fry them like bacon.’”
There are, of course, racist voters who will respond to such cues. But you would think that these MAGA-hat-wearing Americans are already voting for Trump. More relevant politically are the results of a CNN poll released in early September. It found that a majority of voters (51 percent) have a favorable impression of Black Lives Matter.
Biden’s strongest moment in the debate came when he allowed himself to show some righteous anger over the revelation that the Trump administration is unable to locate the parents of more than 500 children who were deliberately separated from their families at the border. After Trump claimed that these missing children were exploited by coyotes who brought them across the border, Biden exploded, “Their parents were with them. They got separated from their parents. And it makes us a laughingstock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation.”
It is so hard to avoid looking at a debate like this one through an entirely partisan lens. But it is possible to imagine an affluent suburban woman, tempted to vote for Trump because of the economy, who witnessed this moment and realized that she can’t support a president who rips children from the arms of their parents.
Trump devoted the bulk of the first half of the debate to predictable attacks on Biden and his son Hunter. But the substance of his volleys was, well, a little hard to make out. Talking over both Welker and Biden, Trump thundered, “If this stuff is true about Russia, Ukraine, China, other countries, Iraq, if this is true, then he’s a corrupt politician.… So don’t give me this stuff about how you’re this innocent baby. Joe, they’re calling you a corrupt politician.”
An infinite number of fact-checkers typing 24 hours a day couldn’t sort out all of Trump’s lies and exaggerations between now and Election Day. What is true (and this speaks to Biden’s strengths as a father as well as his weaknesses as a candidate) is that the Democratic nominee can’t bring himself to criticize his son for his execrable judgment in getting involved with shady figures in Ukraine.
Most of Trump’s charges came across as incomprehensible to every voter who doesn’t watch Fox obsessively every night. The only possible political benefit to Trump is that the blur of wild accusations may have created a cynical they-all-do-it attitude among swing voters confronted by a story like the New York Times report about the president’s whopping $750 federal tax payment.
Time in a debate is finite. And the more time Trump spent on Hunter Biden, the less time he could devote to his signature obsessions. He never mentioned antifa—once seemingly the greatest threat facing the U.S. And his only mention of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad was an inexplicable reference to “AOC plus three.” (“They’re all jumping through hoops for AOC plus three.”)
Unable to come up with a coherent defense of his record on Covid-19 and reduced to promising that a miraculous health care plan is just around the corner, Trump took refuge in the welcoming arms of the stock market. It was telling that the president’s final words on the debate stage were an alarmist warning that a Biden presidency would destroy Wall Street: “Your 401(k) will go to hell, and it will be a very sad day for our country.”
The temper tantrum that caused Trump to boycott the second of the three planned presidential debates was a costly unforced error that deprived him of a moment to halt his downward trajectory.
Now Trump is losing badly to the calendar. Already an estimated 48 million Americans have voted by mail or in person. That figure is roughly equal to the total turnout for the 1948 election. And that, by the way, was a year in which an underestimated former vice president who had had a lengthy prior career in the Senate, Harry Truman, won a decisive victory.