But the reality TV star wasn’t going away – not from such high drama, not from such high ratings. In an interview a few years later, Trump told me that he saw the debate as an experiment in “Who likes pressure?” Voters wanted to see how a future president would deal with being tested and pushed. Trump responded to this pressure. With his back to the wall and the exam remembered like no hopeful president, Trump showed his strongest stage performance of 2016. He was energetic but controlled. He was calm, imperturbable, almost carefree. Even his most damaging lines, like pointing out that Clinton belonged in jail, were delivered with a gentle cadence and a cool grin, as if he knew a secret that others didn’t.
“This debate showed that I like pressure because there was some print. What were the chances? Will he show up like 50-50? “Trump told me.” That debate won me the election. “
I agree with him. In a moment of real crisis, when his campaign was on the verge of collapse just a month before the election, Trump predicted an infectious confidence. The calls for his fall stopped. The party got back to work and reinforced its candidacy. His polls began to recover. Trump had passed the pressure test. He had stopped the bleeding in a way that kept his base intact while demonstrating a resilience, a certain defiance that appealed to some voters who were still on the fence.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that 2016 debate and Trump’s subsequent analysis during Tuesday night’s Cleveland cacophony.
The setting was terribly similar. About a month until Election Day, which lagged heavily in the polls and urgently needed to be revived, the burden of performance was on Trump. It came Tuesday, not with a single Access Hollywood disaster, but with the collective weight of a pandemic that killed around 205,000 citizens, an economic collapse that left millions of people unemployed, and a racist uproar that the population is affecting the seams of American society. With the vote starting earlier than ever and reducing the impact of later debates, there was no time. This was the 2020 version of Trump’s pressure test.
He failed miserably.
After Tuesday’s 90-minute bar argument, there were many experts arguing that we really shouldn’t be surprised. Trump is Trump. The hysterical, norm-shattering guerrilla we debated in Cleveland is the same hysterical, norm-shattering guerrilla we saw on the escalator in Manhattan. The manic president on stage was no different from the manic president on Twitter.
But that is not entirely true. In reality, the candidate we saw Tuesday night – the worn, troubled, curious incumbent of 2020 – bore little resemblance to the loose, boisterous, confident 2016 candidate. It could be difficult to remember in the fog of the past four years , but the invigorating sentiment for Trump during his first inauguration was neither hatred nor division. It was fun. He had the time of his life. Nothing Trump had ever seen had showered him with so much attention, so much admiration, so much controversy and reporting. He loved every moment of it. Even in the valleys of this campaign, such as Access Hollywood Over the weekend, Trump found humor in rattling Rudy Giuliani or joking about Karen Pence. Even when he competed against Clinton, the media or the Never Trump Republicans, he was having fun.
The president didn’t enjoy himself last night. There was no mischievous glint in his eye, no cheerful aliveness in his demeanor. He looked exhausted. He sounded ornery. Gone was the boast, the detached grin that reflected bottomless sources of trust and conviction. Despite being described as an “instinctive predator” by Tucker Carlson on Fox News’ foreplay show, Trump acted like cornered prey – fearful, desperate, trapped by his own shortcomings and the circumstances that exposed them. He was a shell of his former dominant self.
It was shocking to see. While Trump was unemotional in his approach to Clinton four years ago, appearing almost so calm as to appear reassured, he was nervous and excited by the opening moments of Tuesday’s debate. The President screamed and boiled and slapped his arms angrily. His face pulsed with ever lighter citrus tones. For all of the talk of Trump kicking Biden out of his game, it was Biden – and presenter Chris Wallace – who got the president so connected that he was unable to accomplish the bare minimum. Despite being prepared for the obvious questions, Trump was so inflamed that he couldn’t offer the vague outline of a health plan or denounce white supremacists in more than a single word – “sure” – when he had multiple options.
For a long time in the debate phase, Trump benefited from an overwhelming presence, an intimidating person who made up for his lack of political knowledge. This was the story of his prime Republican season success: he would never be the smartest kid in the class, but he would always be the strongest. And yet Trump wasn’t that strong on Tuesday night. He looked startled and insecure. The president, who graduated from Wharton, made fun of his opponent for getting bad grades. The president, slated to lead his country through a pandemic, mocked the idea of wearing an oversized face mask. The president, who vowed to make America great again, portrayed the US (without evidence) as a failed state unable to hold legitimate elections.
Trump lived his adult life on the gospel of Norman Vincent Peale and his mega-sales book. The power of positive thinking. It is preached that there are no obstacles, only opportunities, and that overcoming them is a matter of faith and positive visualization. Watching the president Tuesday night felt like someone was losing their religion. Trump couldn’t overwhelm Biden or Wallace any more than Covid-19 or the cascading job losses or the turmoil in American cities. For the first time in his presidency, Trump seemed to realize that events had overtaken him. His warnings about the consequences of the elections doubled for his own political fate: “This will not end well.”
The President of the United States was facing pressures that he had never been exposed to before. If his re-election campaign fails, Trump cannot blame any particular culprit. However, he can look back on Tuesday’s debate as a bookend for his presidency, a moment in our history that is just as politically and psychologically significant as it was four years ago.