Trump has forgotten the 'forgotten man' of 2016

If undecided voters were looking for a flash of empathy from Trump in the final presidential debate, they were watching the wrong channel.
Image: U.S. President Donald Trump tosses a hat into the crowd
Donald Trump tosses a hat into the crowd as he arrives to speak during a homecoming campaign rally on Nov. 26, 2019, in Sunrise, Florida.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Four years ago, President Donald Trump billed himself as the voice for the "forgotten man." In 2020, he forgot about him.

While Trump cast himself as a candidate who could channel the grievances of average Americans in 2016, in 2020, the grievances he channels are squarely his own, and many of them are incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t marinated for months in Fox News, Hunter Biden’s laptop, pizzagate or other conspiracy theories.

While Trump cast himself as a candidate who could channel the grievances of average Americans in 2016, in 2020, the grievances he channels are squarely his own.

Although he protested that he is "not a typical politician," Trump desperately wanted to talk about former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter and a guy named Tony Bobulinski. (To which tens of millions of voices probably cried out, “Who?”) Bobulinski, a former associate of Hunter Biden, was supposed to be the star of the night. Hoping to reprise his 2016 comeback, Trump brought Bobulinski to the debate as his guest and is touting the businessman’s vague charges about a China business venture as fodder against his opponent.

But the bombshell turned out to be a very damp squib indeed. As the Wall Street Journal reported, Bobulinski’s emails and text messages “don’t show either Hunter Biden or James Biden discussing a role for Joe Biden in the venture.” The corporate records the Journal reviewed “show no role for Joe Biden.” In the end, the whole affair tells us less about Biden than about Trump and where he stands in this election.

One moment in the debate in particular captured his shift from four years ago, when “Trump erupted in sneering sarcasm when Joe Biden summoned the image of middle-class families at the kitchen table,” David Frum wrote in The Atlantic. “The very idea of it irked Trump.”

Here’s how it went.

“If you’re a middle-class family, you’re getting hurt badly right now,” Biden said. “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, and the middle-class families, like I grew up in Scranton and Claymont, they’re in trouble."

Trump clearly preferred to talk about how unfairly he has been treated rather than how he can help the average American.

“We should be talking about your families, but that’s the last thing he wants to talk about,” Biden said.

Trump shot back, “That is a typical statement.” After some crosstalk, he continued:

"That’s a typical political statement. Let’s get off this China thing, and then he looks, ‘The family around the table, everything.’ Just a typical politician when I see that. I’m not a typical politician."

Moderator Kristen Welker tried to get him back on track. "Let’s talk about North Korea now," she said.

But Trump continued, “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.”

Trump clearly preferred to talk about how unfairly he has been treated rather than how he can help the average American. The IRS, he complained, treated him "very badly," and "very unfairly." He was “put through a phony witch hunt for three years. It started before I even got elected. They spied on my campaign. No president should ever have to go through what I went through.”

If undecided voters were looking for a flash of empathy from Trump, they were watching the wrong channel.

That’s why Trump is losing significant demographics of his 2016 voters. Always a prisoner of his own narcissism, he has created an alternative-reality bubble around himself that insulates him from what is happening in his own country.

He believes we are turning the corner and learning to “live with” the coronavirus. But the same day as the debate, more than 70,000 new coronavirus cases were reported; nearly a thousand Americans have been dying every day from Covid-19; and millions of people are without jobs. Millions may be about to lose their health insurance.

But these are not Trump’s problems. Instead, he wants to talk about Hunter Biden’s laptop. He wants to compare himself to Abraham Lincoln. He wants to bask in adulation of fans who think he has made America great. He wants sympathy for all the mean and unfair things that have been done to him.

Please don’t bother Trump with stories about what average Americans who once voted for Trump are dealing with as they sit around the kitchen table. In Trump’s 2020 America, they are the forgotten ones.