The problem, I guess, with being a TV president … there are a non-trivial number of shows that go on far longer than they should. The context of premise that connected with viewers (relatable, entertaining, novel, whatever) changes over the shows run. It’s often difficult to wholesale change the direction of your show, people stop watching, the show starts to go wild directions to bring back viewers (i.e. ‘jump the shark’ both in the literal instance that begat the phrase and other subsequent figurative jumps), and eventually gets cancelled.
I posit that the Trump presidency jumped the shark tonight. In 2016, running as an outsider who wasn’t going to be constrained by all of the BS political rules … that was a viable message (obviously). Saying ‘the current guy created a lot of problems, there are a lot of longstanding problems just because of the way government works, and I’m an outsider who doesn’t need the political machine behind my candidacy. I can fix it” was a viable message. Bullying, name calling, anti-social interactions with other candidates were new — offered catharsis similar to yelling at the TV screen when politicians were defending the status quo. Personally, the race baiting and outright racist comments put me off. I know a lot of people who give older relatives a “pass” on racist comments, though and proceeded to do the same for Trump.
In 2020? Running against yourself is a bit of a long-shot. Trump’s never managed a logical campaign message beyond “it is all awful, and I can fix it”. But he’s had years to fix it this time around, so the message isn’t as powerful. I’d observed earlier this year that his response to the 2016 approach not appealing to voters was to be Trumpier — louder, more violent, more divorced from reality, more racist. Hey, white suburban housewives — fear the melanin that’s going to invade your utopia if you don’t vote for me … which was out of touch on so many levels. The debate tonight was a natural evolution of being Trumpier. Slate counted 128 interruptions in the course of the 90-minute debate (https://slate.com/…/trump-interruptions-first…). The Boston Globe cited an exchange where Trump interrupted Biden 10 times in three minutes (https://www.bostonglobe.com/…/trump-interrupted-biden…/) … “and it got worse from there”. As noted, Trump asked the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” — then followed that sentence “But I’ll tell you what — somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right wing problem this is a left wing.” Which sounds a lot more like inciting violence than the condemnation he was asked to make.
Sure, there’s some frighteningly large percentage of the population who looks at Trump and thinks this is awesome. And I’m sure they are energized by this debate performance. People like the groups of centrist Republicans who are publishing their support of Biden? I cannot see how Trump swayed them back tonight — he substantiated everything they say about Trump that is pushing their vote to Biden.
Biden managed to talk a few times. He managed to convey the most important thing (Trump can only lie and construct a new reality if you let him — go vote no matter how many times he threatens to disenfranchise you). That some states provide a mechanism to cure rejected absentee ballots. And that he’s proud of his son — that’s one that I think might stand out to individuals but be lost in professional analysis. Biden was speaking about one of his sons, and Trump interrupted to bad-mouth the other son. And not just to bad-mouth the guy but specifically to call out the fact the guy had a coke problem. There’s a substantial meth problem / opioid epidemic going on in the country — one that impacts rural America. A lot of people have a friend, relative, and even kid who has a drug problem. A father proud of his son for overcoming addiction is relatable. Someone using a kid’s addiction to attack both the kid and parent? That’s an off-putting move even for someone whose kid isn’t suffering with addiction. I cannot imagine how awful that sounds to someone whose kid is/was addicted to drugs.