Petulant, Annoying, Repulsive, Dismal

Christian Lorentzen

On the question of whether Donald Trump is a sinister mastermind or an incompetent scumbag (not mutually exclusive), last night’s debate will have to register in the scumbag column. His constant interruptions, vanity, self-pity and frequent forays into lies and nonsense are all by this point wearyingly familiar. Of course, Trump has been consistently underestimated since he entered politics, and his supporters no doubt enjoyed the petulant way he dominated proceedings. But his abuse of Biden was a far cry from the humiliations to which he subjected his opponents in the 2016 GOP primary debates. The show has gotten old.

A CBS News poll found that most viewers had a negative reaction to the event, with ‘annoying’ being the most common descriptor. Trump is a phenomenon created by television and abetted by social media; the path to his demise will be paved with low ratings. Liberals have always found him repulsive. The question is when the rest of the voters will get tired of him.

Against any other opponent, Joe Biden’s performance would have been dismal. In the face of Trump’s onslaught, he didn’t embarrass himself too badly, wasn’t too doddering, and perhaps got a few points across. He wants to preserve and expand Obamacare, and he won’t take away anyone’s private health insurance. He intends to fight climate change but won’t go so far as to enact the Green New Deal. He thinks perpetrators of street violence should be prosecuted. He had one son, Beau, who was an American hero, and has another who has struggled with a drug problem but isn’t as corrupt as Trump says he is. It must be frustrating for a Democratic politician who has spent his career pandering to the right to be accused of being beholden to the ‘radical left’. When Trump said, ‘Your party wants socialist medicine and socialist healthcare,’ Biden replied: ‘The party is me. Right now, I am the Democratic Party.’

That moment, early on, may have been the most significant of the night. It represented a line of attack different from the one Trump pursued against Clinton – that she embodied a corrupt establishment that had sold out American workers and mired the country in endless wars –and was easily refuted by Biden because it simply isn’t true. The narrative advanced daily by Fox News, and by Trump at his rallies, is that Biden is a Trojan horse for a radical cabal that has unleashed chaos on the streets of America’s cities – violence covered up by the mainstream media as ‘mostly peaceful protests’. ‘They’re going to dominate you, Joe,’ Trump said last night. ‘You know that.’ In fact, Biden knows that the left faction in the Democratic coalition has been tamed. The prospect of its defection to Trump – ‘You just lost the left,’ Trump suggested a couple of times when Biden asserted his centrism – is nil.

Trump himself has accomplished a takeover of the Republican Party. He bought off the Republicans in Congress with tax cuts, right-wing judicial nominees and deregulation. He has little else to offer them but more of the same, and so his tactics against Biden have become increasingly desperate. The question ‘Is Trump a racist?’ – still a standby of most commentary on the president – is beside the point: his rhetoric lately on immigration and violence coming to the suburbs has tipped into neo-segregationism. He dips into conspiracy theory and casts doubts on the legitimacy of the upcoming election. This is the behaviour of someone running scared.

There are many reasons to believe the Republicans have given up on their president. If they were serious about winning, why didn’t they pursue a second bail-out for the millions of Americans who have been put out of work – and are now being put out of their homes – by the pandemic? Trump seems to think that portraying the election as a contest between the (uncondemned) Proud Boys and Antifa (more an idea than an organisation, according to the FBI, as Biden pointed out) gives him a chance at a second term. Who will fish the stolen ballots out of the rivers and creeks? Stand back and stand by.


  • 30 September 2020 at 8:01pm
    Alex Gutierrez says:
    I think what bodes well for November is that Trump’s attack against Hillary was largely true, but his attack against Biden is bogus.

    • 1 October 2020 at 11:26am
      Charles Evans says: @ Alex Gutierrez
      Most of the attacks against Hillary Clinton weren't "largely true". The Pizzagate/"kill list"/financing international terrorism/colluding with Ukraine/emails stuff was all bollocks. The "she's just part of the Washington political elite" arguments were much closer to the mark, but they also weren't the core arguments against her.

      You're right, though, that the arguments against Biden are basically all bogus. The worst that can truly be said of him is either "he's not radical enough", or "he's spent his career finding consensus with Republicans!", neither of which are particularly wounding I'd have thought.

  • 30 September 2020 at 10:06pm
    Graucho says:
    Biden needs to stay very calm allow Trump his heckles and interuptions and then come out with a line like "You know, if you did a little more listening and a little less interupting then far fewer than two hundred thousand American would be dead by now"

    • 4 October 2020 at 1:41am
      Philip Hauger says: @ Graucho
      This cannot be said too often.

  • 1 October 2020 at 12:50am
    R. Byron says:
    Again, no mention of taxes. Taxes taxes. When Reagan came on board lo these 40 years ago that was his first order of business, cut taxes and cut again, from 80 percent marginal in 1981 to 20 percent in 1989. Reverse engineer that and we have a democracy again. Don't and we don't.

    • 4 October 2020 at 1:12pm
      Rod Miller says: @ R. Byron
      The two are indirectly related, but US democracy died of many other things too: a de-facto one-party Dempublican system (a gargantuan percentage of the electorate sees no point in voting), gerrymandering, voter suppression, and outright rigged results. By my count there have been three presidential elections stolen in my lifetime.
      Tax the rich? By all means. But shenanigans rule in the electoral sphere.

    • 7 October 2020 at 10:23am
      Steven Kurt Klein says: @ Rod Miller
      When you say three presidential elections have been stolen in your lifetime, which do you mean? Maybe 2000 and 2016, what so which is the third? Are you old enough to include 1960? Many people said that at the time, but it's not true. Or perhaps you have another year in mind.

  • 1 October 2020 at 5:09am
    Joe Morison says:
    Lorentzen suggests that Biden saying, ‘I am the Democratic Party,’ may have been the most significant moment of the night. I’d say that far more important was when Chris Wallace asked Biden to ‘tell the American people tonight whether or not you will support either ending the filibuster or packing the Court,’ and Biden refused, saying, ‘Whatever position I take on that, that will become the issue.’

    This suggests that after years of playing nice, of trying to reach a bipartisan consensus, the Democrats have finally had enough. That, if they get the Presidency and the Senate and the House, they are going to ignore the niceties and go hell for leather to enact their vision. They’ll increase the number of justices to give themselves a SCOTUS majority, and filibusterless they will be unstoppable. And who can blame them? Obama bent over backwards to be a uniting figure, and how was he treated? With utter contempt, and then the total hypocrisy of pushing forward Amy Coney Barrett when McConnell blocked Merrick Garland. As you sew, so shall you reap, as I sincerely hope the GOP are about to discover.

    The other deeply significant moment was Trump refusing to condemn white supremacy and telling the Proud Boys to stand by, this was too much for even some of his most devoted supporters. A couple of weeks ago, Michael Tomasky predicted in the Daily Beast that one thing certain about the debate was that Fox would cobble together a mix of Biden’s worst moments and declare it a Trump victory. But to see yesterday’s dejected response on Fox and Friends showed just how badly Trump has fucked himself. The high point was Brian Killmeade saying, ‘Donald Trump blew the biggest layup in the history of debates by not condemning white supremists,’ it was, he said, ‘like refusing to condemn evil’.

    I’m starting to think that we might even know the result on election night. That it will be so clear that even Trump won’t be able to contest it.

    • 1 October 2020 at 8:37am
      Joe Morison says: @ Joe Morison
      Erratum: As you sow ...

      (I wish this forum would allow one to edit one’s posts so we could correct such blunders. It’s noticeable that when the editors make a mistake and someone points it out, a correction is immediately made; but when one of us does, it has to be left up in all its ugly glory.)

  • 2 October 2020 at 2:54am
    Simon Wood says:
    I have a window every night of 2-5am when I can't sleep after my hip replacement. In this window I was able to watch the debate live, which did nothing to sooth my swollen leg, in fact it was inflammatory.

    Surely these three old white boys do not represent the colourful, wonderful show that is America?

    The debate would have been vastly improved by advertisements.

    That poor Biden was severely bullied by that liver-failure-complexion Trump and the referee got mauled in the melée, too. Fortunately Biden has what looks like a surgically enhanced permanent smile.

    Dear God, what a travesty. I was reminded of getting up in the middle of the night for boxing matches in America, but this was the Muppet Show gone horribly wrong..

    • 7 October 2020 at 10:26am
      Steven Kurt Klein says: @ Simon Wood
      Exactly: whatever else you might say about them these candidates are far too old.

  • 3 October 2020 at 7:58am
    Peterson_the man with no name says:
    As always these days with presidential elections, the reporting has been coloured by the belief that it represents the final, apocalyptic battle for America's soul. In truth, the damage that might have been caused by a Trump presidency has been mitigated by his towering incompetence, his total lack of interest in governing and the fact that he clearly doesn't even believe in a great many classic right-wing shibboleths (if he could have become president by calling for all statues of dead white men to be torn down and replaced with empowering representations of oppressed women of colour speaking out against microaggression and mansplaining, doubtless he would have done so). Nearly four years in, people are still more angry over the things he says than anything he has actually done. If the alt-right ever produces a politician of genuine ability, he will make the Trump era seem like a golden age.

    • 4 October 2020 at 1:25pm
      Rod Miller says: @ Peterson_the man with no name
      Excellent post. Never forget why Donald was elected in the first place: too many people were too furious at three solid decades of Clintonism. That's why significant numbers of 2-time Obama voters went for Trump.

      Gibberish Joe will not govern. He's well off down the Yellow Brick Road. Instead we'll see the Samantha Powers and Mayor Petes of this world running the show.

      They'll serve WallSt and the military/industrial complex and pave the way for a Real Competent Fascist. I have to laugh out loud every time somebody calls Donald a "fascist".

    • 4 October 2020 at 4:26pm
      Delaide says: @ Rod Miller
      Well, he is a fascist (intolerant, right wing authoritarian) and I don’t share your sense of humour. Notwithstanding his general incompetence his impact on the make up of the Supreme Court, his admiration for foreign authoritarian leaders and his disdain for traditional democratic allies on its own is enough to threaten America’s role as Democracy’s standard bearer. And yes, I know that, especially since Reagan, America has hardly been worthy of that role. But even so, a lurch further to authoritarianism is hardly to be welcomed. And if you don’t believe that there will lasting impacts on America and the world if Trump and his Republicans (or is it the other way round?) brazenly, quite possibly violently, steal the election then perhaps at least you don’t see the humour in it.

  • 3 October 2020 at 2:28pm
    Graucho says:
    We now know from Trump's tax returns why he is fighting this election like a cornered rat, because he is one.

    • 4 October 2020 at 1:29pm
      Rod Miller says: @ Graucho
      Like so many things we've "known" about Donald, We'll See. Of course he's corrupt (that's a bipartisan status) but whether he can be convicted of tax evasion depends on whether he didn't just play the loopholes like any other Very Rich American with good accountants.

    • 4 October 2020 at 8:01pm
      Graucho says: @ Rod Miller
      His big problem is that either he lied to the IRS or he lied to his funders when raising money. If his tax returns are genuine they would never have lent him a cent if he'd been honest with them. Either way it's fraud.

  • 3 October 2020 at 3:18pm
    Dick Scanlon says:
    Trump has been consistently underestimated? I couldn't get past that line.
    The man gets important information before everyone else, and yet is too willfully ignorant to take basic steps to protect himself from a deadly virus. How can he be underestimated?

    • 4 October 2020 at 1:37pm
      Rod Miller says: @ Dick Scanlon
      Well he sure as hell was underestimated in 2016 -- spectacularly.

      You mean he got early briefings from the CIA that this was indeed a bad virus, certain to hit the US soon. They may even have tried to explain to him what a geometric progression is.

      But if you're Donald, you simply don't believe them. They're prominent members of the deep state that launched the whole bogus Russiagate thing in an attempt to get rid of you. Now they're telling you -- in an Election Year -- to prepare to hobble the economy. It's obvious to you that this is yet another plot to get rid of you.

      He simply didn't believe it.

    • 4 October 2020 at 4:10pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Rod Miller
      I think it’s more complex than him not believing it. Trump is so dishonest, so deeply and pathologically a liar, that I’m not sure he has a notion of reality as something separate to his will the way normal people do. When he receives information that he doesn’t want to hear, I think that on one level he believes it and knows that he’s lying when he rejects it as a lie; but at another level, I don’t think he can process the idea of the world as something separate to his vision, so he’s also being sincere. It must be hellish to be like that, no wonder he’s so insecure.

    • 4 October 2020 at 9:56pm
      Rod Miller says: @ Joe Morison
      I didn't say information he didn't want to hear. I think (speaking of lying) he believed he was being Lied To, that the spooks were trying to torpedo his re-election chances by advising him to get ready to do things that would throw people out of work, generally slam the economy.
      Remember: just nine months ago Donald was sitting pretty. The collapse of Russiagate and the impeachment saga had made him more popular.

      He's been acting like a political bonehead all year for some reason. I can think of any number of ways he could have used the pandemic to boost his popularity. (Some other leaders have.) Instead he's painted himself into one corner after another.

      Donald is exceptionally mendacious, yes. But all recent presidents have been poolroom liars. Well, it'll take a miracle for him to win now, and he's running against someone he ought to be able to run rings around.

      Donald has an insatiable ego. Yes, that must be hell.

  • 3 October 2020 at 5:28pm
    marlow says:
    In an otherwise cogent analysis one point stands out as problematic: Even if one grants the premise that "Trump is a phenomenon" of the current media ecosystem, that system is itself a machine that reaches back to "Network" "Citizen Kane" and the apocryphal if still on point story about Hearst telling Remington - "You provide the pictures and I'll provide the war."

    That Trump is a malignant troll is beyond dispute but he did not pop out of America's head via the recent media echo chamber - though he certainly is the fever dream of its current psychosis.

    From Teapot Dome to Mission Accomplished (with stops along the way for everything from Tuskegee to MKUltra to Mongoose, Phoenix, Condor, Trickle-Down (voodoo) economics) Iran-Contra, and every time someone said the magic words - "I'm sorry Senator, I don't recall") - the system has been like a man coming down from an ether binge (to borrow a telling descriptor).

    Or (to borrow another) the appropriate response to American political culture is: Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown.

    The question is not, why "Trump" but why not?

    He is exactly what we should expect from a machine that is dropping bolts and shooting off sparks and has been for as long as anyone can remember.

    Biden is therefore both a creature of the system and an indispensable man.

    Less grand than Churchill but as Winston could at one point celebrate Mussolini and later help stem the tide, Biden is both ridiculous and essential; both the Mayor of Bedford Falls and the country's last best hope to avoid the abyss.

    • 4 October 2020 at 1:42pm
      Rod Miller says: @ marlow
      Biden was appointed to Mind the Empire. He personally can't, on account of growing dementia. But his creatures will.

      Blood WILL flow.

    • 7 October 2020 at 3:06am
      marlow says: @ Rod Miller
      I have no doubt Biden has lost a step and even less doubt that he is the front man for the establishment mantra that the center however corrupt must hold.

      But I have seen no evidence of dementia and given the alternative, Biden is the indispensable man.

  • 3 October 2020 at 8:20pm
    Michael Field says:
    As an unfortunate recipient of a barrage of many scores of emails from the Trump Campaign (Family would be more accurate: Lara, Don Jnr, Eric, etc) the past few weeks, I would say two things to the optimists out there. First, Trump was addressing one of his core groups-the largely white working class constituents-in the debate, who I can assure you have been incessantly urged to watch the debate for weeks and see Trump CRUSH Biden (CRUSH is a word used in just about every email I have read from the Trump campaign). He was not addressing the other two core components (the evangelicals and most of the rich who are not especially interested in social details and plans; just their bottom lines: dogmas or dollars). Secondly, at this point, Trump does not believe he can win with a fair ballot. So his campaign is addressed mainly to how to stay in power if/when it becomes clear he will lose the presidential vote. That is certainly possible for him to do with control of the supreme court (which has rarely shown much interest in fair ballots). Republican governors in several critical states might well use their power to install pro-Trump electoral college voters if it appears likely that the state has gone democrat.

    Expect increasing chaos.

  • 3 October 2020 at 8:46pm
    dsflynn01473 says:
    I find Lorentzen sallow and shallow as a political commentator. Joe Biden held a liberal senate seat in moderate Delaware for 40 years, he was key in Obama's successes, and is offering the nation a liberal and progressive platform. Yet here and in a recent LRB book review he treats Biden superficially and with Sandernista condescension . It was politically adroit of him to avoid the Green New Deal while arguing for one as good. Give us intelligent cynicism, not elitist.

  • 3 October 2020 at 9:15pm
    jomellon says:
    If Trump and the GOP believed he will win, why the hurry to nominate a Supreme Court Judge?

  • 3 October 2020 at 9:18pm
    wse9999 says:
    Well the RCP polls remain solid for Joe.
    Nat avge 7.4 lead this am, 4th Oct, up near 1% point pre debate.
    Battlegrounds lead up a bit. And closer polling in b/g not good for T.
    Yes T disappointed his support, as they say he hardly gave Joe a chance to gaffe.
    Its his to win.
    Too many at the margin - including some Republicans - have just had enough of the toxic Narcissistic bluster, disrespectful of democratic process, home and abroad.
    Need a rest, a reset.
    Sleepy Joe sounding attractive?
    His to lose.

  • 3 October 2020 at 11:26pm
    Mark McBride says:
    At this point, I just hope Trump stays positive. (I’ll see myself out.)

  • 4 October 2020 at 9:32am
    davidovich says:
    Trump came to power because there was no longer a coherent account of liberalism that could inform a single, solitary, urgent and humane policy capable of being initiated among the actual personnel of the actual Washington political class. Electing Biden will be no resurrection. The whimper the world ends on will be re-electing Trump. Our political classes across our entire system of alliances stand condemned. Wouldn’t it be nice if this wasn’t so; if one decent voice spoke up for the millions falling behind; if one decent voice was allowed to.

  • 4 October 2020 at 8:47pm
    Elizabeth Cunliffe says:
    Don't interrupt someone when they are making a mistake.
    Napoleon Bonaparte

  • 4 October 2020 at 8:50pm
    Elizabeth Cunliffe says:
    Correction and apology to readers:
    Don't interrupt your enemy when they are making a mistake.

    • 5 October 2020 at 8:00am
      davidovich says: @ Elizabeth Cunliffe
      Enemy or friend , no one seems capable of interrupting such an ominous silence. Perhaps the silence is our enemy.

    • 7 October 2020 at 2:38am
      davidovich says: @ davidovich
      The great German theologian who formed a synthesis capable delivering Europe (at least intellectually) from the mad ideological rush to Perdition was Paul Tillich who describes God as the “Ground of Our Being”. Religious ideology contra authentic faith is the ensemble of all the petty grounds of social death. It is the latter heresy of which Trump is the ‘secular arm’. Reaction really has reached the end of the line. It is up to us to invent a future.

    • 11 October 2020 at 12:21pm
      davidovich says: @ davidovich
      The Intercept denounces the Nobel Committee and urges Glück to refuse it, for giving the prize to a novelist who makes a case for Milosevic or at least shows a little empathy for him (the prize is after all awarded for literature ). I detest such arm-twisting partisanship. Nor can I expect to escape it anymore than anyone else who insist on thinking for themselves . I suppose the assumption of the Intercept is that people don’t read books anyway. The assumption of every political oaf , I suppose, is that you can only read so many newspapers in a day.

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