Never underestimate Donald Trump. Despite four straight years of non-stop scandal, controversy, lies, trampling of norms and lowering expectations to the gutter – five and a half, if you start from his grotesque June 2015 Trump Tower debut as a candidate – Trump still manages to shock, awe and appall America. He proved his malevolent mettle again against Joe Biden at Tuesday’s night’s first presidential debate in Cleveland.
Trump was at his unbridled and untethered worst. He cut Biden short, whispered bitter insults as his rival spoke, clashed with Fox News moderator Chris Wallace, threw out falsehoods with abandon, repeatedly debunked conspiracy theories as gospel truth and, generally speaking, behaved like the neighborhood bully.
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Israelis, of course, could only yawn. Decades of famously raucous public discourse, which continues to deteriorate by the day, in tandem with the ongoing degeneration of leading politicians, have inured Israelis to Trump’s unique brand of callous vulgarity and strongarm tactics. His talents would earn Trump an immediate spot in Netanyahu’s legions of uncouth and possibly unhinged defenders.
But while Trump did garner immediate right-wing praise for his forceful put down of his weakling rival, most Americans seemed stunned and revolted, with occasional bouts of nausea. Not only did Trump break with precedent, tradition and the specific arrangements his campaign agreed to in advance, he boasted of the “great job” he’s done in warding off COVID-19, cited pie in the sky “facts” and “statistics,” accused Biden of being a “socialist stooge” and asserted that he would “destroy America” if elected.
Trump regurgitated his unproven allegations of corruption against Hunter Biden, exposed his supposed drug addiction, lied about the circumstances of his army discharge and topped it all off by completely ignoring Biden’s emotional tribute to his son, Beau. If you like your presidents rude, crude and incapable of basic human empathy or decency, Trump is undoubtedly your man.
But while most of the post-debate buzz focused on Trump’s thuggish theatrics, one of his replies, or rather lack thereof, will live on in infamy, especially, though far from exclusively, among Jews. Confronted with yet another demand to explicitly condemn white supremacists, in general, or the alt-right neo-fascist Proud Boys, in particular, an alarmed Trump stumbled, fumbled and then uttered the bizarre statement “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” as if he was their commander in chief.
Trump may have thought he was joking, but his obstinate refusal to condemn white racists should remove any lingering doubts about where his true sentiments lie. Jewish voters who support Trump because of his supposed generosity towards Israel must now work that much harder to repress the realization that they are giving their votes to the hero of nativists, neo-Nazis and racist nutballs all tinged with more than a touch of antisemitism. Trump’s clique of racist kooks certainly had themselves a ball on Tuesday night.
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Instead of reassuring Americans that he would leave office if he loses the elections, Trump turned their fears into justifiable hysteria. Just as Netanyahu has concocted a sinister legal conspiracy about those supposedly out to topple him, undermining public trust in the legal system in the process, so Trump seizes on random and isolated cases of voter irregularities as proof of a pernicious plot to steal the election.
The number of Americans who are confident that U.S. elections are free and fair is dropping precipitously and dangerously, setting up a potentially cataclysmic domestic clash if Trump decides to go for broke. The nightmare scenario, of course, is that he would declare victory based on the initial tally of votes cast on November 3 without waiting for the final count of many millions of absentee and mail-in ballots, which he has already described as massive fraud.
Biden didn’t stumble, fall or embarrass himself, as some had feared, but he nonetheless disappointed many of his supporters. Given a golden opportunity to repay Trump with his own callous coin, they were looking forward to vengeance and payback. Biden, however, mostly stuck to his script, using the opportunity to speak directly to voters and to thepresent himself as the solid, experienced, empathetic and diametrical opposite to the president.
Taken aback at first by Trump’s brutishness, Biden tried to ignore him or to guffaw derisively as Trump spoke, but every once in a while, the former VP’s Irish blood came to a boil. It’s not every day that the U.S. president is called “a clown” to his face or asked “Why don’t you shut up, man?” In fact, it’s never been done.
Right wing pundits by and large declared victory for Trump, praising his forceful demeanor, his domination of the night and his exposure of Biden’s weaknesses and frailties. Trump’s base will sing his praises, not only for humiliating Biden but for putting that Fox News turncoat Wallace and the “fake news” media he represents in their proper place. They seemed unbothered by the possibility that Trump’s tempest is exactly what Biden’s strategists had in mind.
Biden’s low-key performance in the debate echoes his overall campaign strategy, which has so far given him a stable lead of seven to ten percent in national polls and a solid advantage in most battleground states. Were it not for the trauma of 2016, Biden would likely be crowned the presumptive winner of the November 3 ballot, barring force majeure and other unforeseeable developments.
Biden’s low-profile strategy in his overall campaign and at Tuesday’s debate cedes center stage to Trump intentionally. Give him enough rope, the logic goes, and he’ll hang himself, especially when he’s behind in the polls and growing increasingly desperate.
The adulation of his base, which Trump covets, doesn’t bring him any closer to closing the gap with Biden. Trump needs to court wavering white suburban voters, especially women, and persuade them to “return home.” Women, however, are hardly going to be convinced by Trump’s domineering, masochistic and ultimately violent behavior.
If Trump is bleeding more moderate voters it is because of his failures on the coronavirus pandemic, stoking of racial tensions and divisions, anti-democratic instincts and generally repulsive personality. If anything, Tuesday’s debate could end the indecision of many undecided voters and place them firmly in Biden’s camp.
Much of the conversation over the next few days is likely to focus on criticism of the chaotic debate and Wallace’s inability to control it, or Trump. Biden may very well consider proposals to back out of the next two debates and to leave Trump twisting in the wind. If the polls show the president slipping even further in the polls, he might even join him. If Tuesday’s first debate turns out to be its last, Americans could finally come together – in a collective sigh of relief.