More than 40 million Americans had already voted by the time Donald Trump and Joe Biden took their posts on last week’s debate stage. It was a belated affair in every sense of the word: Trump pulled out of the scheduled second debate, which would have been virtual, and then lost the ratings war he initiated in which he and Biden held competing town halls. This late in the game, there was some question as to whether this last encounter between two very old and very well-known candidates would be able to change much in a race that’s low on undecided voters. The first debate hurt Trump slightly in the polls, largely because he shouted through the whole thing. Would the president not interrupting everyone make a difference?
There are things one could say about the last debate. Compared with how they behaved in their first encounter, Trump started out calmer and Biden started out stronger. It would be a mistake to call this debate more substantive—when one candidate lies constantly and speaks in Fox News code words, the result isn’t exactly clarifying. The more formal structure, and the mute button, disfavored Trump, who can’t really debate ideas or avoid lying but excels at sneering dominance exercises via interruptions, nicknames, innuendo, and mockery. Put differently, the stricter environment favored Biden, whose slower, occasionally sarcastic power plays had room to be seen and heard. When debate moderator Kristin Welker asked Biden if he wished to respond to some outlandish thing Trump had said, Biden answered, quite memorably, “No.” It was the right strategy to take toward Trump’s Gish Galloping. So was Biden’s line about Trump wanting to talk about Biden’s family when, really, the two candidates ought to be talking about yours.
All things considered, though, the story of the two debates echoes a larger pattern throughout this strange campaign season—namely, that extraordinarily turbulent news cycles have provoked very little change in a surprisingly stable Biden lead. This surprised me. For one thing, Trump’s presidency has driven home the extent to which Americans overwhelmed by information become amnesiacs: Fresh occasions for anger abound to such an extent that it’s difficult to remember what happened even two weeks ago. This has worked to Trump’s advantage in the past. His approval numbers have frequently crept back up when his presidency has managed to only repeat governing mistakes, in lieu of initiating new ones. That has made us all acutely sensitive to each new opportunity Trump has to possibly gain some points in the polls: Will this debate performance tighten the race? Will this Hunter Biden story—however dubious its provenance—somehow succeed at injuring Joe Biden with voters, even if Trump’s children are scandal factories themselves? The answer seems to be no—The majority of American voters are counteracting Trump’s exhausting, newsmaking volatility with pretty fixed opinions. And Biden, taking proper precautions during a pandemic, has had to fight to break into a news cycle so frequently dominated by his opponent but that seems to have treated him just fine.
What it feels like is there’s nothing more to say: about these two men, about 2020, about the choice we are in the process of making. Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court—the stakes of which are unimaginably high—has been received with an almost eerie calm. Democrats made health care central to Barrett’s confirmation hearings, emphasizing what so many Americans know but can’t accept: “Terminating” the Affordable Care Act, as Trump wants to do, will mean leaving a lot of people with no health care at all. (In all these years, neither Trump nor the Republican Party has managed to produce a replacement.) We’ve had this conversation so many times it’s difficult for it to really register anymore. Barrett’s nomination has not produced mass protests, nor has the fact that Barrett is almost certain to rule against abortion rights. It’s possible Democrats simply recognized a lost battle. When nothing can be done procedurally to stop this—except achieve a majority in the Senate and win the presidency so as to curb the damage—there’s little profit in feeling the full extent of this catastrophic loss. Voting is not only the most practical answer in a long losing list; it has become a way to cope.
This campaign hasn’t been waged over policy issues. There is simply no way to fruitfully compare Trump’s promise of a replacement health care plan he calls “beautiful” but hasn’t bothered to produce to Biden’s concrete proposal that would include a public option. The campaign has really been a contest over “the character of the country,” as Biden puts it. Trump has insisted on making the election personal in the narrowest way, limited to a personality-based set of disputes—to his detriment, since Biden has high favorability among American voters, and many people who were inclined to give Trump a chance in hopes that he might become “presidential” are seeing recent and incontrovertible proof of the opposite. If anyone hoped Trump might govern as an American president answerable to everyone, not just his supporters, the pandemic scuttled that for good: He remains attached to “red vs. blue states” binaries and terminally committed to primitive and punitive loyalty tests. Just on Monday, he threatened to punish Pennsylvania for a perceived slight by one of its elected officials. Asked during the debate what he would say to all Americans in his inauguration speech, he replied that voting for Biden would mean a depression and 401(k)s going “to hell.” He’s even made the pandemic all about him: The biggest coronavirus story of the past month has been the president’s illness, which he has framed not as a nationwide battle he took part in but as a personal victory confirming his toughness. “I’m immune,” he bragged, even as White House chief of staff Mark Meadows confessed this weekend that the administration had surrendered. (“We are not going to control the pandemic,” Meadows said Sunday.) When Biden accused Trump of accepting no responsibility for how the coronavirus has been handled, Trump’s extraordinary response was: “I take full responsibility. It’s not my fault.”
There was a moment in last week’s debate that crystallized the tenor of this moment for me as an amalgam of resignation and fury. Confronted with a damning report about 545 children his administration separated from their parents and has failed to reunite despite a court order, Trump tried to say the children came without their parents (wrong), tried to blame Obama (who, yes, deported more people than even Trump but never implemented a punitive family separation policy), and finally bragged that the facilities where these children—some infants, some too small to even know their parents’ names—were taken from their families were well run. The facilities, Trump said, were “clean.” It was an outrageous, unforgettable moment, but I wonder, if you watched the debate, if you even remember it now. Or anything else. There is too much to be angry about, but the anger is not interesting; it has matured to an urgent feeling that this simply must end. As my colleague Jordan Weissmann put it, “It feels like there’s so much going on, and just nothing really left to say about it.”
There is no more to see and no more to say. Everyone knows what they need to know. These two men are extremely well-known. Fifty million Americans have voted already, and we are all exhausted from cycling through manic news cycles that are taking us nowhere new. We are sicker, poorer, lonelier, and sadder. No relief bill appears to be in sight. Businesses will close and infections will rise until we end this. We have (at least) one anxious week to go before this interminable election is over. All there is to do now is vote.
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