October 23, 2020 - 9:51am

Perhaps it had a deterrent effect, but the much-discussed mute button was rarely used at last night’s presidential debate. Donald Trump was far more cordial — even gracious — this time round, largely honouring the time limits and even thanking the host for inviting him to speak.

There were, of course, flashes of the old Trump, interrupting Biden when it came to Hunter Biden and the “China plague”. At other points, he reeled himself in just in time, like a footballer on a yellow card pleading for penance after a dubious tackle. But by and large, the President avoided getting himself into trouble. In fact, he was so restrained that, for the first 30 minutes, Trump came across as decidedly flat.

Worse still, he looked rehearsed. Trump, who has always been good off the cuff, seemed to lose faith in his own ability. In one response, he wavered and lost track of one of his own points in Biden-esque style:

All he talks about is shutdowns — no, we’re not going to shutdown and we have to open our schools. And it’s like — I have an example: I have a young son — he also tested positive. By the time I spoke to the doctor the second time he was fine. It just went away. Young people. I guess it’s their immune system —
- Donald Trump

At which point the host interrupted.

But gradually, he started to warm up. Without doubt his best moment came 45 minutes in, reminding viewers of what made Trump so popular in 2016, when he presented himself as the anti-politician to Biden’s beltway man. On the question of Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine and China, Joe “No More Malarkey” Biden barely addressed it. Instead, he turned to face the camera, saying that he wanted to talk to you, the American people, about how much your family was suffering. To which Trump responded:

That’s a typical political statement. Let’s get off this China thing and then he looks “the family, around the table”. Just a typical politician when I see that. I’m not a typical politician. That’s why I got elected. Let’s get off the subject of China and let’s talk about sitting around the table. Come on Joe, you can do better than that.
- Donald Trump

For the first time, Biden looked rattled. This was the Trump, who, instead of harping on about the radical Left and the China plague for the sixteenth time, was taking on the establishment. He was the odd one out, and as in 2016, the gatekeepers wanted to punish him for it. Later he returned to this line, calling Biden a “corrupt politician”:

Why didn’t he do it four years ago? Why didn’t you do that four years ago? You keep talking about all these things you’re gonna do, but you were there just a short time ago and you guys did nothing. Joe, I ran because of you. I ran because of Barack Obama because you did a poor job. If I thought you did a good job, I would have never run, I would have never run. I ran because of you. I’m looking at you now because you’re a politician. I ran because of you.
- Donald Trump

Biden, on the other hand, looked increasingly tired as the debate progressed. By the hour mark, it was probably past his bed time and it showed. Furtively looking down at his notes, he started to lose some of the conviction that had come across so strongly before, and labelled the ‘Proud boys’ the ‘Poor boys’ when he tried to link the President to the organisation.

But perhaps his biggest gaffe — and one that was met with a stunned silence (including by Trump) was a question about criminal justice reform. Donald Trump asked: “Why didn’t you get it done? You had eight years with Obama. You know why Joe? Because you’re all talk and no action.” Biden’s response? “Because there was a Republican Congress”. This from the man who prides himself on bringing both sides of the aisle together. Trump simply said, after a long pause, “you gotta talk to them Joe”.

These moments of life, however, were few and far between; this meek Trump seemed to be going through the motions, and at times it felt valedictory.

is UnHerd’s Newsroom editor.