Thursday night’s televised town halls with Donald Trump and Joe Biden were windows into the country’s two possible futures. Unlike their Sept. 29 debate, which Trump turned into a chaotic mess, the town halls showed how each candidate, on his own, dealt directly with voters. Trump’s forum, on NBC, was a preview of a world without Biden. Biden’s forum, on ABC, was a preview of a world without Trump. One was a nightmare. The other was a foretaste of blissful relief.
Trump showed he had learned nothing from his first term and would change nothing in a second. He shrugged off more than 200,000 American deaths from the coronavirus, calling the United States “a winner” in comparison with Europe. When Savannah Guthrie asked about the mask-free superspreader gathering at the White House on Sept. 26, Trump expressed no regret. As to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who had apologized for not wearing a mask at the event, Trump scoffed, “He has to say that.” The president bragged about taking the risks that led to his infection, and when Guthrie asked “how you might improve in a second term,” he replied, “I’ve done a great job.”
Trump continued to spread lies. He repeated his bogus story about banning travel from China against the will of his advisers. He defended the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory (“They are very strongly against pedophilia, and I agree with that,” he said) and refused to back down from his retweet of a bizarre smear about Biden orchestrating a plot against Navy SEALs. (“People can decide for themselves,” said Trump.) But his most pernicious lies were about masks. He misrepresented a study to suggest that it showed masks don’t work (it didn’t; they do), and he pretended that public health experts disagree about whether masks are effective (they don’t).
The president also picked fights. He didn’t have Biden to kick around, so he went after Guthrie. “So cute,” he sneered when he didn’t like one of her questions. When she reminded him that FBI Director Christopher Wray had found “no evidence of widespread fraud” in voting, Trump retorted, “Oh, really? Well, then he’s not doing a very good job.” As to the GOP’s scorched-earth offensive to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court before the election, Trump implied that it was revenge for Democratic opposition to Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. “The whole ballgame changed when I saw the way they treated Justice Kavanaugh,” Trump seethed.
Above all, Trump made clear that in a second term, he would continue to focus on his own grievances, not other people’s problems. He accused governors of locking down their states and crippling their economies just to hurt him politically. He deflected questions about his paltry income tax payments, fuming, “I’m treated very badly by the IRS.” When a woman asked him to outline his plan to “make health care costs affordable for Americans like myself,” he ignored the question and bashed Obamacare instead.
Biden’s forum was nothing like Trump’s. He described how encounters with people different from himself—Black Americans and gay men—had opened his eyes to the lives of others. He acknowledged and explained the mistakes in his 1994 crime bill. When George Stephanopoulos noted that there was no record of Biden calling for mask use or social distancing in January or February, Biden—instead of lying or fudging, as Trump does—said, “That’s correct.” He explained how he had changed his behavior from March onward, especially by wearing masks, in response to what scientists were learning about the virus.
Biden leveled with his audience. He said Trump’s promise to distribute antibody cocktails to all Americans was impossible, because there weren’t nearly enough doses to go around. He corrected Trump’s misleading boasts about how soon a coronavirus vaccine would be available. He noted that some children, despite Trump’s dismissive assurances, had fallen seriously ill with the virus and that no vaccines had been tested on children. At every opportunity, he stressed the importance of wearing masks.
Biden pledged to govern collegially. He rejected Trump’s reliance on executive orders, saying he would work to win congressional support for his tax plans. “We’re a democracy,” he affirmed. “We need consensus.” He said he couldn’t force governors to mandate the use of masks, but he would lobby them to do so, and if they refused, he would lobby mayors. Nothing good could be accomplished in politics by nursing grudges or attacking people’s motives, Biden argued. He vowed “to take care of those that voted against me as well as those who voted for me.”
Most important, Biden signaled that his presidency would be about the public, not about him. He gave detailed answers, from carbon sinks to community policing to small-business associations. He asked each voter whether he had adequately addressed her question. When a Black student recalled the former vice president’s flippant remark that anyone who doubted whether to support him over Trump “ain’t Black,” Biden—instead of lashing out, as Trump often does—responded with an intricate discussion of redlining, home equity, drug courts, Title I school funding, and the vicious circle of low financial credit. He told the young man that he would strive to be “worthy of your vote,” and he offered to stay afterward to talk with him and others in the audience.
And then, for more than half an hour, he did just that. As the TV reporters and pundits moved on, Biden circled the auditorium in a mask, answering questions. It was a glimpse of a world without Trump, a future in which Americans could be heard by a president who cared about them. Biden’s microphone was off, so I couldn’t hear what he told the people who lingered to speak with him. But they could, and that’s what matters.