The Presidential Town Halls Were Mister Rogers Versus Nasty Uncle Trump

Even Donald Trump has moments of self-awareness. During an interview last week with Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing talk-radio host whom he honored with the Medal of Freedom earlier this year, the President briefly abandoned his puffery to admit that he might be defeated—and that his own nastiness would be the reason why. “Maybe I’ll lose,” he told Limbaugh, “because they’ll say I’m not a nice person.” He added, “I think I am a nice person,” before pivoting back to his trademark name-calling. A few days later, the political liability of his brutish persona was clearly on Trump’s mind again. “Can I ask you to do me a favor?” he begged “suburban women” at a rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on Monday. “Will you please like me, please, please?”

I do not know who will win the election less than three weeks from now. But I do know this: if Trump does lose, he’s right that his sheer unlikability will be a major contributing factor. He’s a bully and a boor. He’s overbearing, self-absorbed, impossible to shut up, and especially patronizing to women, which, of course, is one of the reasons why those suburban moms he is begging to vote for him are telling pollsters that they are decidedly against him.

Trump was certainly no nice guy in his Thursday-evening town hall, on NBC, offering those who tuned in a repeat of his harsh performance in his first debate against Joe Biden. This time, Trump’s foil was not Biden, because Trump had refused to debate him on the terms set by the Commission on Presidential Debates, but Savannah Guthrie, the NBC News moderator. Guthrie seemed to infuriate Trump with her quick questions and real-time fact-checking of some of his most egregious whoppers. The President was loud, and increasingly red in the face, as he struggled to respond. He berated Guthrie and refused to answer questions. He offered a sarcastic aside about how something she said was “so cute.” He lectured her on how “underlevered” he was. None of that seemed likely to win over suburban women.

When Trump debated Biden, a couple weeks ago, Fox News’s Chris Wallace failed to stop Trump from going on the offensive, endlessly interrupting Biden and making a mockery of the debate rules. On Thursday, NBC offered Trump a chance to recoup in front of a national television audience. Instead, he chose to double down—even with Biden appearing separately, at his own town hall over on ABC. Answering questions from a real journalist for the first time since that debate and his subsequent coronavirus hospitalization, Trump was unrepentant about the pandemic, and even absurdly claimed that he had seen a study purporting to show that eighty-five per cent of those who wear masks get COVID-19 anyway. In the debate, he had refused to denounce white supremacy. This time, he refused to denounce QAnon, even after Guthrie explained that the group falsely claims Democrats are “a satanic pedophile ring” engaged in an elaborate sex-trafficking conspiracy. “I don’t know about QAnon,” Trump responded, before saying that at least the group is strongly “against pedophilia,” which he is, too. The whole effect was more than a little unhinged, as captured in Trump’s most memorable exchange with the NBC anchor.

Why, Guthrie asked the President, had he chosen to tweet out a wild conspiracy theory earlier this week, suggesting that President Obama had killed the Navy’s SEAL Team Six in order to cover up the fake death of Osama bin Laden? When Trump responded that he was merely retweeting this insane and completely bogus story, so it was perfectly fine, Guthrie refused to accept his answer. She said, “I don’t get that. You’re the President! You’re not like someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever!”

But, of course, that is exactly what Trump is, and his combative performance was no accident: it was just what the President wanted and, indeed, what he had planned for his encounter with “fake” NBC News, an insult that he tweeted hours before taking NBC’s stage. Trump, win or lose, will end the race as he began it, in a blaze of name-calling and narcissism. It’s far too late to rebrand the President, and the campaign, which last year ran an expensive TV ad during the World Series literally bragging that “he’s no Mr. Nice Guy,” isn’t about to start trying.

And so Trump has been out there on the campaign trail this week, the coronavirus be damned, raging at Hillary Clinton and the forthcoming “rigged” election. He has been promising that Mexico is paying for his gigantic, beautiful border wall, and talking about the Russiagate “hoax” and Hunter Biden’s e-mails. Four years ago, Clinton was a “monster”; today, that is what Trump calls Kamala Harris, the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate.

Trump might not even be entirely wrong in pursuing his theory of the case. He did not need a winsome personality to win the Presidency four years ago, a miracle that, for Trump, offers an all-purpose justification for whatever political folly he is currently engaging in. And the truth is that he does still have a chance of beating Biden, remote as it seems. On October 15, 2016, the Web site FiveThirtyEight gave Clinton an eighty-five-per-cent chance of winning the election. On October 15, 2020, the same Web site gave Biden an eighty-seven-per-cent chance of winning. Both nationally and in a few battleground states, the polls are better today for Biden than they were for Clinton, but only marginally so.

Still, somehow, this time feels different—and it is, in some real ways. Four years later, Trump is older, heavier, and far, far less coherent in the message he’s offering. He’s the incumbent, not the outsider, and he increasingly seems disconnected from the reality of the country he leads, ignoring the huge death toll from the pandemic and the economic pain and dislocation it has caused as he obsesses over a tangle of conspiracy theories that is vast and largely undecipherable even to those who are paying close attention. After four years of this, many Americans are exhausted by it all, and particularly by the President’s relentless, polarizing, inescapable presence in their lives. They could use a little nice.

At the end of Thursday night’s town hall, Guthrie offered Trump a final word, asking him why voters should give him a second chance in office and inviting him to reflect on “how you might improve.” But self-criticism is hardly the President’s style, as Guthrie—and all of us—know so well by now. “I’ve done a great job,” Trump responded. “Next year is going to be better than ever before.”

When Trump’s hour on NBC was finally over, I switched the television to ABC, where there were still thirty minutes left in Biden’s town hall. It was all dulcet tones and policy wonkery. After listening to Trump, the Biden show sounded soothing, and even a bit boring. Turning the channel to the former Vice-President exchanging civilized words with George Stephanopoulos and an auditorium full of earnest Pennsylvanians was like stumbling into a meditation room after being trapped at a barroom brawl. If Trump was Guthrie’s crazy uncle, Biden was his sensible, long-winded brother.

For days before the duelling town halls, Democrats and even some journalists at NBC had been furious with the network for agreeing to host Trump at the same time that Biden was appearing on ABC. But that criticism failed to account for Trump himself: with his big mouth and inevitable bluster, he remains, as always, his own worst enemy. Minutes into the two town halls, the Trump campaign aide Mercedes Schlapp tweeted that Biden sounded like the late children’s-television host Mister Rogers, of zippered-cardigan fame. She clearly meant it as an insult. But who doesn’t like Mister Rogers? Isn’t that sort of what America needs after four years of binge-watching Trump, the political equivalent of World Wrestling Entertainment?

Pete Buttigieg, who ran against Biden in the Democratic primaries, suggested as much in his own tweet: “Just imagine turning on the TV, seeing your president, and feeling your blood pressure go down instead of up.” In that sense, at least, the second debate may not have taken place with the two candidates standing on a stage next to each other, but it nonetheless had a clear winner in Joe Biden, whichever channel you watched.


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