Trump Picks a Lot of Fights With People Who Aren’t on the Ballot

At Tuesday’s debate, he couldn’t restrain himself.

Trump pointing
President Donald Trump during the debate on Tuesday in Cleveland. Brian Snyder/Reuters

Donald Trump loves to fight. On Tuesday night, in his first 2020 debate, he constantly attacked Joe Biden. But Trump also attacked governors, reporters, previous political opponents, and his own officials. He’s headed for defeat in part because he can’t stop making enemies and alienating voters. Here are some of the dumb fights he picked on Tuesday night.

1. Impeachment. Halfway through the debate, moderator Chris Wallace asked, “Why should voters elect you president over your opponent?” This was Trump’s opportunity to brag about his achievements. Instead, he began the second sentence of his answer by fuming, “And that’s despite the impeachment hoax.” Up to that point, no one in the debate had mentioned Trump’s impeachment. By bringing it up, he reminded viewers of this embarrassment.

2. Hillary. After raging at his impeachment, Trump’s next words were: “And you saw what happened today with Hillary Clinton, where it was a whole big con job.” Later, when Wallace asked about possible voter fraud or voter suppression in 2020, the president again denounced “Crooked Hillary Clinton.” Trump seems to have forgotten that he’s no longer running against Clinton. In fact, he desperately needs to win over some of the people who voted for her. By lambasting her, he pointlessly antagonizes those voters.

3. Obama. Democrats “came after me trying to do a coup,” Trump ranted. “We’ve caught them all. We’ve got it all on tape.” He accused his predecessor, falsely, of masterminding surveillance of Trump’s campaign in the Russia investigation. “President Obama was sitting in the office,” said Trump. “He knew about it, too.” This smear makes no sense. To begin with, Barack Obama, like Clinton, isn’t on the ballot this year. Second, Trump owes his Electoral College victory in 2016 to people who voted for him after having supported Obama in 2008 and 2012. By slandering Obama, he risks losing them. Third, Trump wasn’t sniping at Obama in the name of some policy voters might care about. He was doing it to promote a conspiracy theory about himself.

4. Pocahontas. “If Pocahontas would have left two days early, you would have lost every primary,” Trump told Biden. He was referring to Sen. Elizabeth Warren—one of Biden’s rivals in the Democratic primaries—who had erroneously claimed Native American ancestry. But Warren also isn’t on the ballot. And voters tuning in to this debate with open minds—those who, until now, had paid little attention to the campaign—probably had no clue what Trump was talking about. It sounded like an ethnic slur out of nowhere.

5. Governors. Trump thinks some Democratic governors, in the name of COVID prevention, have restricted schools and businesses more than is necessary. Many people agree with him. But instead of focusing on that policy dispute, Trump impugns the governors’ motives. He accuses them of deliberately strangling their state economies in order to cost him the election. “They think they’re hurting us by keeping them closed,” he said. By twisting the dispute into a self-absorbed conspiracy theory, Trump turns a potentially winning argument into a loser.

6. The media. Early in the debate, Wallace said Trump had “never come up with a comprehensive plan to replace Obamacare” and had signed a “symbolic executive order to protect people with preexisting conditions five days before this debate.” He asked the president, “What is the Trump health care plan?” Trump could have responded by outlining a plan. Instead, he went after Wallace. “First of all, I guess I’m debating you, not him,” Trump snapped. “But that’s OK. I’m not surprised.” Rather than reassure voters about a life-and-death concern, he pursued his personal grievance against the “fake news.”

7. Vaccines. Wallace noted that on the question of when vaccines would be available, Trump had “contradicted or been at odds with some of your government’s own top scientists.” He mentioned Moncef Slaoui, the director of Trump’s vaccine development program, and Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The smart political response would have been to assure viewers that the president and his scientists agreed. Trump did the opposite. In fact, he picked not one fight, but two. “I disagree with both of them,” he said.

8. Masks. Later, Wallace asked Trump, “Are you questioning the efficacy of masks?” That would be a foolish position to take—63 percent of voters say they always wear masks when they go out near other people—but Trump took it. “I don’t wear a mask like him,” Trump sneered at Biden. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask.” When Biden pointed out that Redfield and other health officials had endorsed the use of masks, Trump escalated the fight. He accused Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, of having said that “masks are not good.” The accusation was false and foolish. It pitted Trump not just against Biden, but against the electorate and all the administration’s health officials.

9. The FBI. Wallace challenged Trump to “condemn white supremacists” involved in violence over race and policing. Trump hedged, advising racist gangs to “stand back and stand by.” But seconds later, Trump quarreled with his handpicked FBI director, Christopher Wray, over whether antifa was an organization or just an ideology. “He’s wrong,” said Trump. This bizarre sequence signaled that the president was more willing to confront the FBI than to confront racists.

10. Stupidity. Even when Trump targeted Biden, he often did it in a self-destructive way. First he called Biden a bad student—“Don’t ever use the word smart with me,” Trump seethed—and falsely accused Biden of claiming to have attended Delaware State University. Trump was wrong: Biden never claimed to have been a student at the historically Black university. But by reminding viewers that Biden went to a state school (the University of Delaware), Trump played into Biden’s anti-elitist message. Later, when Trump was asked about having paid almost no income taxes, he scoffed that everyone exploits tax loopholes, such as “privileges for depreciation,” “unless they’re stupid.” That remark reinforced Biden’s argument that Trump despises ordinary people who follow ordinary rules.

Tuesday’s debate didn’t end the election. Trump could gain ground in the next five weeks, and he’ll get two more chances to make a better impression. But a candidate who couldn’t restrain himself in the first debate probably won’t do it in the second or third, either. He is who he is.