The Noise from last night’s debate was at a far lower decibel level than the horror show that passed for a debate three weeks back.
But the Signal really didn’t change: Trump’s mendacity level was through the roof, and his lack of empathy was if anything even more on display, by virtue of the fact that he was speaking quietly enough for people to actually take in the words as much as the bluster.
There were so many lies and distortions that it’s something of a crapshoot as to which ones to highlight. But for sheer vileness, let’s focus on the smears against Joe Biden’s family; the incapacity to show the slightest iota of empathy for the parents and children separated from each other at the southern border as a result of the Trump administration’s deliberate policy of child-snatching; and the extraordinary rhetoric he deployed against Biden’s climate policies.
On the family smears front: In Trump’s telling, Biden’s son Hunter was milking China, Ukraine, and several other countries for millions of dollars, while Biden himself, during his time as vice president, was “getting a lot of money from Russia.” On certain phone calls, Joe Biden may or may not have been cryptically referred to as “the big man” who would take a 10 percent cut in all the unsavory deals supposedly being worked out. And other correspondence shows that Biden, his brothers, and his son were a crime syndicate colluding in a nefarious plot to walk away from the political stage with millions in illicit moneys.
This is the stuff of paranoid Internet chat rooms; the “big man” smear is cartoonish, a takeoff on “the fat man,” a larger-than-life ne’er-do-well in the novel and film noir The Maltese Falcon. It ought to have no business in a presidential debate. But it’s also the tell of the grifter who has long sought to deflect from his own moral and legal failings by charging his opponents with doing the sorts of things he does on a regular basis. When Trump does this, he hunches his shoulders and moves his neck forward and down slightly; his face deflates just a tad; his eyebrows seem to arch; his hands, fingers splayed, get more active; and his lips purse, tightening his cheeks just that extra bit as he stresses each syllable. It is the hustler’s package, the look of a used-car salesman desperate to convince a mark to buy a 20-year-old clunker with a leaky radiator and a collapsed suspension system.
Trump’s fantasy cum demagoguery soared to new heights in Tennessee as he ranted, in his own stream-of-consciousness way, about his opponent. The self-proclaimed billionaire said that Biden was able to stay “in the basement” rather than get out and hold large rallies because he was somehow unfathomably wealthy—a claim that is both untrue and a non sequitur. Trump—whom The New York Times recently exposed for claiming wildly different valuations on his upstate New York mansion—then impugned Biden for living in “very nice houses.”
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On Biden’s environmental policies, Trump wasn’t much better, combining demagoguery with incoherence in equal measure. He talked of a mysterious cabal of policy-makers known as “AOC plus three” who are pulling Biden’s strings regarding investing in green energy and retrofitting buildings and industries to become more fuel-efficient. Trump conjured comically implausible numbers in asserting that Biden’s plans would cost $100 trillion, which is roughly five times the size of America’s gross national product. He then went for what he must have thought was the jugular with the bizarre assertion that Biden wanted to “knock down buildings and build new buildings with little tiny small windows.”
It’s hard to know what to say to that, so I’ll just move along to the appalling set of responses Trump gave when challenged on his family separation policy, and the recent reports that upwards of 500 children cannot be reunited with their parents because the administration neglected to keep records that would allow them to track down the parents of these young kids.
A normal human being, regardless of ideology, would at least try to perform a mea culpa here. But that’s not Trump’s style. Instead he deflected, repeatedly saying that Biden was responsible for putting children in cages. When the moderator persisted in questioning Trump about the children, his answer was, “Children are brought here by coyotes and lots of bad people.” The subtext: The lawbreaking parents and children got what they deserved. When the moderator followed up by asking whether he had a plan to unite the kids with their parents, Trump muttered, “Yes, we’re working on it very hard,” and then refused to say what the plan was. Instead, he pivoted: “They are so well taken care of. They’re in facilities that are so clean.”
Two things are, of course, wrong with that ghastly statement: The first is that by all accounts the facilities are horrendous, with government lawyers’ having argued in court over the past few years that even such items as toothpaste and soap ought not to be considered necessities. And the second is that even if they were as sparkling as a penthouse suite in a Trump hotel, that wouldn’t mitigate the emotional impact on families of being torn apart deliberately by order of Donald J. Trump. A man with a normal empathic response would have talked about the pain of separation and the need to make things as right as possible; Trump, by contrast, can only ever think in terms of baubles.
Trump then made a bad situation even worse by denigrating the entire asylum process, saying that if asylum-seekers are let into the country, only 1 percent of them will attend their subsequent court hearings. There’s no evidence to back up that statement, but in Trump’s mind, evidence doesn’t really matter. Which might explain why he then threw in another gratuitous insult to immigrants by saying that the only ones who bother to show up for court hearings are the people “with the lowest IQ.” Presumably the rationale is similar to Trump’s own rationale for gaming the IRS regarding the taxes he owes. Trump believes that only suckers and losers, only people “with the lowest IQ,” play by the rules. In 2016, he told a debate audience that his ability to avoid taxes made him “smart.” Now, in 2020, he tells another debate audience that only stupid people go to court hearings they are legally required to attend.
I’ve generally shied away from the “soul of the nation” message that Biden pitches; it has always seemed a bit mushy to me. But after seeing last night’s debate, it’s clear that Biden is right on this. I can’t remember any election, either here or abroad, that has so clearly been about character and about moral values. Who we are as a people is entirely at stake in the coming days and weeks. That’s my take-home from watching the second and final debate. And that’s the Signal as we head into the election’s final stretch.