Trump stuck fighting the 2016 war as Biden comes out on top

The Guardian-2 months before

That summed up why Trump lost his last ever US presidential debate and, opinion polls suggest, is losing the election.

Trump desperately wants it be 2016 again, when his opponent, Hillary Clinton, was dragged down by misogyny, a dogged FBI and the whiff of coastal elitism. Back then he invited three women who had accused Bill Clinton of inappropriate sexual behaviour to a debate with her, and stalked Hi...lary on the stage (“My skin crawled,” she said later).

Hillary Clinton On Thursday night, Trump reached for the same playbook by inviting Tony Bobulinski, former business partner of Biden’s son Hunter, to the debate in Nashville, Tennessee. The president pushed unsubstantiated allegations against Hunter regarding his business activities in Ukraine and China based, just as in the Clinton saga, on supposedly incriminating emails.

Trump said: “But now what came out today is worse – all of the emails, the horrible emails of the money you were raking in, you and your family. I think you owe an explanation to the American people. Why is it somebody just had a news conference a little while ago who was essentially supposed to work with you? And your family? But what he said was damning.”

He claimed, without evidence, that Biden’s family received $3.5m from Russia. But 2020 is not 2016 and his accusations fell flat. Biden, like his running mate Kamala Harris before him, spoke volumes with bemused frowns, wry chuckles and expressions of distaste like a parent confronted by a foul nappy or diaper. He swatted the issue away, insisting: “I have not taken a penny from any foreign source in my life.”

And he turned the tables, noting recent media reports that Trump has a secret bank account in China and paid more in taxes in that country than in America. Biden said: “I have released all of my tax returns. 22 years. Go look at them … You have not released a single solitary year. What are you hiding?”

Trump tried to revive the issue as the debate wore on, making reference to Ukrainian energy firm Burisma and the “laptop from hell”, but Biden countered with his favourite word, “malarky”, and said Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who is pushing the conspiracy theory, “is being used as a Russian pawn”.

the “laptop from hell” The whole thing was vague and arcane to anyone not trapped in the Fox News universe. Trump’s entire campaign has been like Jaws 2, a vastly inferior sequel with a director who is not Steven Spielberg, trying and failing to recapture lightning in a bottle. “Crooked Hillary” resonated with his supporters; “Sleepy Joe” not so much.

Biden spoke volumes with wry chuckles and expressions of distaste, like a parent confronted by a foul diaper

The clarity of the “Make America great again” brand and a hardline message on immigration, trade and the wall has been replaced by “Make America great again, again, again, again,” – as he put it in Tuscon, Arizona this week – and frantic efforts to talk about anything but the coronavirus crisis pandemic that has killed more than 220,000 Americans so far this year, and infected millions, including the president himself.

But if he could not run against Clinton again, Trump would have settled for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, whom he could have tried to portray as radical leftists. On Thursday he tried it with Biden on healthcare, citing Sanders’ work on “socialised medicine” in Vermont; it was then Biden pointed out he is his own man, and defeated the supporters of the universal healthcare plan Medicare for All.

The second and final presidential debate appeared to be a final vindication of the wisdom of Democratic primary voters – Iowa and New Hampshire apart – who judged Biden to be the pragmatic choice to run against Trump. He solidified a candidacy that has avoided the negatives of Clinton and potential negatives of his primary rivals.

As for Trump, the world witnessed Bruce Banner fighting hard to keep his inner Hulk at bay. Advisers had warned him to avoid the smash up of the first debate when, according to the Axios website, he interrupted Biden 71 times, while Biden interrupted him 22 times.

Under the excellent moderation of NBC News’s Kristen Welker, it actually resembled fairly normal political spectacle. At around half-time, the president even told Welker: “So far, I respect very much the way you’re handling this.”

Let no one use the dreaded terms “presidential” or “pivot” with regard to Trump, however. Wearing a Republican red tie, he unloaded a rally’s worth of falsehoods and was notably outmanoeuvred by Biden, wearing Democratic blue, on Covid-19, child separations at the border and race.

“We’re rounding the turn, we’re rounding the corner, it’s going away,” Trump said of the virus, even as it surges to highest point since the summer. “We’re learning to live with it.”

Biden seized the opening. “He says, ‘We’re learning to live with it’. People are learning to die with it.”

Biden also struck a chord with: “Two hundred twenty thousand Americans dead. If you hear nothing else I say tonight, hear this: anyone who is responsible, for not taking control – in fact, saying I take no responsibility initially – anyone that is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America.”

Perhaps the most revealing segment, however, was on race. Welker, herself a woman of colour, outlined how Black parents, irrespective of economic class, give their children “the talk”, including how to respond when they are pulled over by police. It was a question bound to expose Trump.

“Nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln – the possible exception – but the exception of Abraham Lincoln, nobody has done what I’ve done,” Trump said. “I’m the least racist person in this room.”

Biden shot back sarcastically: “Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history. He pours fuel on every single racist fire – every single one. This guy is a dog whistle as big as a foghorn.”

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