October 23, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Trump holds everyone in contempt, including Republican voters
Scorn for real people's real problems is why the debates matter.
A typical thing to say about presidential debates is they don’t matter. That, however, was before the first between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. That one, and I’m still not sure why, did matter. It clearly moved polling in the Democratic candidate’s direction.
So I’m a little hesitant to say the second debate won’t matter. I’m tempted to agree with the conventional wisdom. Trump didn’t piss himself. He started out composed! Biden was OK. He had a couple of great soundbites. Put it all together, see it from the perspective of the median white voter, and it’s probably true the whole thing was a wash. It won’t impact the election one way or another, which means, on balance, Biden won. (There really isn’t any such thing as winning or losing debates but stay with me.)
Some liberals believe Trump said “good” in response to the fact that immigrant children are still not reunited with their parents. He didn’t. He said “go ahead” to moderator Kristen Welker. Rendered in mush-mouth, it sounded like “good.”
The pundit corps, which includes me, has a habit of generalizing the particular and particularizing the general in ways normal people don’t. While the pundits were busy lamenting the first debate as a “shitshow” and national disgrace, I kept seeing normal people bringing up one concrete detail that left a lasting impression on them. That was the president’s visible contempt for Hunter Biden’s history of substance abuse. That was coupled, moreover, with Joe Biden’s unconditional love for his troubled son.
Again, I don’t know exactly what about the first debate caused Biden’s margin over the president to grow. No one can really say for sure. Cause-and-effect is not possible to identify in public polling. But the margin did widen. That’s a fact. Trump’s disdain for ordinary human frailty was a part of that. I can’t help thinking (hoping?) even hard-shelled Republican supporters were put off by the sight of such naked disgust for a problem lots and lots of people face, especially amid the scourge of opioid addiction.
The pundit corps was, last night, and is, this morning, noting the differences between the first and second debate, in particular the president did not beclown himself quite so heroically, which, by the magic of punditry, means he did just as well as Biden. Meanwhile, the concrete detail I’m seeing popping up is Trump’s indifference to the suffering of 500-some children in government custody after being taken from their immigrant parents as part of the administration’s sadistic policy of deterrence. Such indifference is appalling—to liberals and others who have living, beating hearts. But I don’t think Trump’s remarks, however soulless they in fact are, are going to move public polling. (Some apparently believe Trump said “good” in response to the fact that these children are still not reunited with their parents. He didn’t. He said “go ahead” to moderator Kristen Welker. Rendered in mush-mouth, it sounded like “good.”)
Here’s the tip jar! Put something nice in it!
What about the second debate would move polling the way the first debate did? Again, contempt. Not for Trump’s enemies, though. When he said immigrants have low IQs, that was shocking, but not to his supporters. That might have been worth cheering. No, what’s going to shock Republican voters is when Trump expresses contempt for them. That’s what happened during the first debate. Contempt for the former vice president’s son was contempt for anyone overcoming addiction, which includes lots and lots of Republicans. Last night, he did it again, coming off as scornful of people struggling financially. If I’m right, this detail, as small as it is, will have some effect.
Now, I’m guessing that wasn’t his intention. His intention was pointing out Biden’s “kitchen-table” trope in order to say he’s just another politician saying one thing, meaning another. “It’s not about his family and my family,” Biden said. “It’s about your family, and your family’s hurting badly. If you’re a middle-class family, you’re getting hurt badly right now. You’re sitting at the kitchen table this morning deciding, ‘Well, we can’t get new tires. They’re bald, because we have to wait another month or so.’ Or, ‘Are we going to be able to pay the mortgage?’ Or, ‘Who’s going to tell her she can’t go back to community college?’ They’re the decisions you’re making. We should be talking about your families, but that’s the last thing he wants to talk about.”
To which, Trump said:
That’s a typical political statement. Let’s get off this China thing, and then he [says], ‘The family around the table, everything.’ 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. Let’s talk about sitting around the table. Come on, Joe. You could do better.
Again, Trump’s target here is Biden’s rhetoric. Biden’s using “a typical political statement” to dodge facts (which aren’t fact; they’re lies, but go with it.) That alone might have scored points, but the way Trump did it, with a genuine feeling of sheer disgust that the transcript fails to capture, gave the impression that this might be the way the president really feels about real people really struggling to make ends meet. Even if the trope isn’t real (it’s rhetorical), the hardship is! Yet hardship seems so beside the point to him it’s not worth validating, even with empty words. I’m very trope-conscious. That’s part of my job. But Trump managed to shock me. Most normal people, including lots of Republicans, are not trope-conscious. How did they feel?
We’ll find out soon enough.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.