Why an out-of-control president raged through a cringe-worthy debate

Chris Christie said of the debate, "The problems the president had tonight can potentially be fixed." But they can't -- and that's the problem.
Image: U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in their first 2020 presidential campaign debate in Cleveland
President Donald Trump and Joe Biden during the first presidential campaign debate in Cleveland on September 29, 2020.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Toward the end of the Republican Party's presidential nominating process four years ago, the remaining candidates gathered for a debate at which Donald Trump, the party's frontrunner, bragged about the size of his genitals. I remember thinking at the time how tragic it was to see what had become of a once-great political party.

Four years later, Americans saw Trump, now the president of the United States, on a different debate stage, lying, raging, heckling, erupting, and interrupting, and it was hard not to feel a sense of sadness about what has become of a once-great political system.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who helped prepare the incumbent president for the debate, was asked on ABC News last night for his reaction to the event. "The problems the president had tonight can potentially be fixed," Christie said.

It was notable in its own right that one of Trump's own debate coaches acknowledged the president's on-stage failures, but more important is the fact that Christie was mistaken: Trump's "problems" can't be fixed -- and that's the problem.

Michelle Obama has said, "Being president doesn't change who you are; it reveals who you are." As the world was reminded last night, the Republican incumbent has been revealed as a scared and dishonest fraud, indifferent toward rules, limits, and reality, unable to present a platform, a vision, or a coherent message. What viewers saw, in other words, was Donald Trump being Donald Trump -- the voice we see at the rallies, and one we read on Twitter, is the same voice he brought to the debate stage.

To call last night's event a debate is itself a dubious assertion. Joe Biden and Donald Trump may have shared a stage, and they may be seeking the same office at the same time, but to believe the Democratic and Republican nominees were each contributing to the civil discourse in the same way is to ignore what actually happened in Cleveland's new Mistake On The Lake.

Rachel's post-debate analysis rang true for a reason:

"The clear choice that the American people have to make doesn't much feel like a choice between Biden and Trump. It feels like a choice between a type of civic, normal politics, where there are debates, which have rules, where people on both sides may talk over each other a little bit, but at least they are participating in the same process, and we ultimately decide which one of them we want to be the leader. Or we have what we have seen tonight, and what this incumbent president is promising, which is a monstrous, unintelligible display of logorrhea, which has absolutely nothing to do with civic discourse, with debate, or even with the integrity of the contest they're about to approach.... This sort of debate shouldn't happen in a democracy."

It's tempting to try to process debates through conventional questions. What did the candidates hope to accomplish? Who were their target audiences? What core messages did they try to get across? What was their strategy and what does it tell us about the state of the race?

None of those lines of inquiry seemed especially relevant last night. The unprepared president didn't have a strategy, per se, he had a tantrum.

It's likely Trump felt as if he didn't have a choice. By every available metric, Joe Biden is winning the 2020 race, and his performance last night, while occasionally halting, was more than enough to keep him in the lead. Republicans spent months inexplicably lowering expectations for the former vice president, and he cleared them easily.

This led the incumbent to act like a child losing a board game, deciding it's better to simply toss the board in the air than to endure an embarrassment.

Among the problems for the GOP ticket is the fact that Trump is running out of time and opportunities to change the trajectory of the race. In recent weeks, the partisan lines were clear: Democrats feared Biden would have a poor performance and put his lead in jeopardy, while Republicans saw the debate as a chance to put the president's campaign on a new course.

As the dust settles this morning, Democratic fears have eased, and Republican hopes have been dashed. In a rather literal sense, Trump was unable to help himself, lacking the wherewithal to act like an adult for 90 minutes.

The result was the worst presidential debate in U.S. history, a 90-minute ordeal unworthy of a great nation. Americans have never seen anything quite like this, and if we are very fortunate, the country never will again.