by James Billot
Friday, 23
October 2020

Was Donald Trump saying goodbye?

The much-discussed mute button wasn't needed at the final Presidential debate
by James Billot
A muted Donald. Credit: Getty

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.

Join the discussion

  • Trump learns fast. Remember, he’s not a career politician dedicated to, well, career, like Biden. He’s already rich, so he doesn’t have to milk the taxpayer. He doesn’t have to be afraid of losing office because he’s got a life to go back to. Because of all this, he has never behaved like the kind of politician journalists are used to covering. He doesn’t fit the template distributed to baby reporters in journalist college, so when he does anything which looks remotely like what a “normal” politician does, it’s tempting to fit the behaviour to the template.

    In fact, Trump HAS been behaving more soberly (at least for him) over the past year or so as he has got fuller control of the levers of the American state. BECAUSE he learns fast (and “fast” is a relative concept in the treacle that is the Washington self-advancement factory), he changes fast. Where more sober behaviour gets results, he’ll rein himself in and GET those results, like the businessman he his. It doesn’t mean he’s losing interest. If anything, quite the reverse. He’s just getting into a more measured and determine stride.

    Trump’s strength and his great weakness have always been the same – he shocks people. That’s good, because while they’re in that state, he can roll over them (and many of them need to be rolled over). But it’s also bad because it prevents them thinking clearly and rationally where he is concerned. When they begin to function again after the initial shock, they are driven by a maniacal hatred of the man which prevents them giving credit where it is due under any circumstances, and that includes journalists. If he turned water into wine, they would claim he had a drink problem, so a more subdued Donald J Trump was never going to get any credit from them for being statesmanlike.

    But he MIGHT just get it from swing voters who are still capable of cold judgement.

  • The headline bears no relation to the rest of the piece. What is this, the Guardian? I suppose it is suggesting the Trump might lose, and of course he might. But the granular analysis of early voting results in swing states – at least those that I am hearing about – suggests that Trump is ahead of where he was at this stage in 2016. In other words Biden is up, but not by as much as Hillary was at this stage, with most of the Trump voters yet to cast their ballot. And in Ohio Trump is already up, and whoever wins Ohio has won the Presidency for the umpteen last elections.

    Crucially, Biden stated that he wants to ‘phase out’ the oil industry. Well, good luck winning Texas with the policy (Trump is already well ahead in Texas, anyway, apparently). And Trump has been reminding the good people of Pennsylvania that Biden/Harris want to end fracking, with supports countless jobs in that very key state.

    The balance of US commentary that I’ve seen and read on last night’s debate gave it to Trump, as did some panels of independent voters. Meanwhile, Trump rallies attract tens of thousands while Biden events literally attract no more than about 15 people, most of them Biden staffers.

  • Biden has made far more racist statements over the years than Trump. And quite recently he attended the funeral of, and eulogised, a sometime member of the KKK. The good news is that (young) black Americans have been doing their research and learning this stuff for themselves. Consequently, perhaps 25% of them are going to vote for Trump. Older black Americans are still struggling to get off the Democrat plantation.

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