In debate, president takes a trip to a strange place: Trump Land

The debate was an opportunity for the president to articulate some kind of vision for a second term. He preferred to take a trip to Trump Land.
Image: U.S. President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Biden participate in second debate in Nashville, tennessee
President Donald Trump speaks during the third and final presidential debate with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., on Oct. 22, 2020.Jim Bourg / Reuters

The first presidential debate of the 2020 cycle, Donald Trump failed because of his personality: the Republican incumbent struggled to act like an adult for an hour and a half, tried to bully his way through the event, and watched the race slip further away from him soon after.

The final presidential debate of the year was different, at least insofar as the president made a point to be less obnoxious, but the end result was largely the same: Trump failed again, but this time his breakdown was less about personality and more about policy.

Unable to defend his record, the president spent much of the evening spinning a fantastical tale about how great things are in Trump Land. This, for example, was Trump's public reassurance about the state of the coronavirus pandemic:

"I can tell you from personal experience, I was in the hospital. I had it and I got better. And I will tell you that I had something that they gave me, a therapeutic, I guess they would call it. Some people could say it was a cure.... I've been congratulated by the heads of many countries on what we've been able to do.... As I say, we're rounding the turn. We're rounding the corner. It's going away."

None of this was even remotely true. There is no "cure"; those congratulatory messages from foreign leaders aren't real; and coronavirus infections are currently reaching a brutal third peak. But in Trump Land, the crisis that's intensifying is simply "going away."

The entire debate continued along these lines. In Trump Land, the Republican administration's child-separation policy should be blamed on Barack Obama and Joe Biden. In Trump Land, Special Counsel Robert Mueller went through the president's finances and exonerated him. In Trump Land, China is paying the United States billions of dollars in tariffs. In Trump Land, the president isn't racist.

In Trump Land, Biden isn't from Scranton. In Trump Land, testing is to blame for coronavirus cases. In Trump Land, the president is "tough" on Russia. In Trump Land, Biden's the one taking foreign money. In Trump Land, the president was "kidding" when he suggested treating COVID-19 patients by injecting them with disinfectants.

The problem, of course, is that Trump Land bears no resemblance to our reality. These presidential claims weren't just exaggerations or misleading spins; they were ridiculous falsehoods, peddled by an incumbent who should've been able to point to real-world successes.

Making matters slightly worse, when the president wasn't lying about the recent past, he was struggling to articulate any kind of vision about the near future. An analysis from NBC News rang true:

While Trump gave a stronger performance than he did in the previous debate, many of his answers looked backward rather than forward, a tendency his advisers have urged him to avoid. Unlike in 2016, when Trump had a clear pitch to the American people about what he would do if elected -- build the wall, drain the swamp, bring back jobs -- he has failed to crystallize a second-term agenda into any similarly succinct and clear message.

After nearly four years and two debates, Trump still has not -- and almost certainly cannot -- describe what he intends to do about any of the major challenges facing the country. It's clear what the president's against -- Biden's plans -- but the Republican has nothing to say about what he's for.

Last night was an opportunity for the president to, among other things, articulate some kind of vision for a second term. He preferred to take a trip to Trump Land. If the incumbent thinks this will change the trajectory of the race, he's likely to be disappointed.