The most obvious thing to me about last night's toxic sludge fire of a debate is that Trump knows he's losing. Bigly. And he has no idea what to do about it. Many pundits are confused on this point, because they treat Trump as a conventional politician or as a media figure rather than as a psychiatric patient. And if you don't view Trump through the lens of his maladies, you misunderstand him. Trump is not a serious politician. Comparing him to other Republican presidential candidates doesn't help you understand him. This is not Mitt Romney. Let me compare him instead to someone Trump does resemble, deeply: Mike Tyson.
Back in 1997, just before Tyson's infamous rematch with Evander Holyfield, the Boston Globe's boxing columnist, a guy named Ron Borges, predicted that if Tyson couldn't beat Holyfield in the first three rounds, he'd try to disqualify himself. Tyson no longer had the stamina for a full-length championship bout, Borges explained, although he still had a furious opening attack that had won him some matches, and even a heavyweight belt, with early knockouts. But if he couldn't knock out Holyfield by the third, Tyson had no chance. He would only get weaker as the match stretched on. So he'd try to disrupt the match and get a DQ instead.
Holyfield won the first three rounds. In the third, Tyson bit off part of Holyfield's ear.
What people forget is that Tyson bit Holyfield's ear twice, because the referee didn't stop the fight after Tyson had actually chomped off part of his opponent's ear. (If you want to make a comparison to last night's debate moderation here, feel free.) So Tyson bit Holyfield again.
This was crazy, but not spontaneous. It was Tyson's plan. He actually came out for the third round without his mouth guard, which is a crazy thing to do if a heavyweight contender is about to punch you in the mouth over and over again, but efficient tactical preparation if your plan for the upcoming round is to bite some dude. The ref made him put it back in. Tyson came out of his corner looking to get thrown out of the fight. When biting didn't work, he kept biting until he got thrown out. Then he threw a tantrum blaming the referee.
What we witnessed last night was an attempt to bite off the opponent's ear, to look for a DQ rather than take a public beating. Trump destroyed the debate because he had no legitimate way to win, and he knew it. He can't stand on a stage with Joe Biden for ninety minutes in a conventional, legitimate debate. I mean, what would he talk about? His record? He can't afford to do that. Trump has no affirmative case to make for his presidency beyond childishly obvious lies. So his goal was to keep Biden from talking. His handlers talk about how he was trying to goad Biden into some gaffe, and maybe that's part of the truth, but I think Trump's handlers don't understand the real goal: keep Biden from talking so Biden couldn't score any points. Trump couldn't beat Biden, so he tried to derail the match so Biden wouldn't be seen beating him.
This strategy only intermittently worked. Sometimes Biden was rattled, because it's hard to have a serious conversation while a floridly symptomatic mental patient shrieks at you. But when Biden got a chance to breathe and focus for 45 seconds, especially when he spoke directly to the camera, it became very clear why Trump couldn't afford to let Biden speak for any longer than that.
Here's the thing: this is not a strategy for a candidate who's behind, and Trump is behind. Keeping Biden from gaining more ground on him isn't a win. Biden's ahead by 7 or eight points. Trump needed to use the debate to close some of that gap, and ruining the debate, getting the DQ, doesn't do that. (To switch sports metaphors briefly, it's the equivalent of trying to get the last innings of a baseball game canceled when the other team is ahead. If you're losing after six innings, you don't want the last three rained out, because then you lose.) So this was less strategy than pathology.
Getting DQ'd out of the Holyfield match was not to Tyson's advantage. Getting disqualified is not better than losing. It's actually much worse. Not only did Tyson forfeit the match, he lost his boxing license and got fined millions of dollars. It would be much better to fight through the next twelve rounds, take his lumps, and lose honestly. But that would have meant Tyson letting people see him lose. Instead, no matter how high and insanely self-destructive the cost, he preferred to end the match and keep the option of pretending he might have won. Tyson was willing to throw his career in the toilet in order to shift blame for his defeat onto the ref.
Trump, like Tyson, can not accept or admit defeat. He would rather hurt his campaign than have the experience of letting Joe Biden beat him on live TV. But doesn't that invite the even greater humiliation of having Joe Biden beat him on Election Night? Yes, but here's the thing: Trump knows he can't win the election either.
Let me say that again: Trump knows he cannot win this election. He knows he cannot get more votes than Biden, that he will lose the popular votes by millions. Listen to him, if you can stomach it: this man who constantly boasts never boasts about the vote count he's going to rack up, because he's read the polls. He knows he's losing. No one associated with the Trump campaign talks about the popular vote. They have given up hope of winning it.
They barely, if ever, even talk about the Electoral College. Trump doesn't brag about which states he's ahead in. Because he doesn't have a strong lead in any state with more than about 11 electoral votes. He's way behind, playing defense on most of his map. He's going to have to defend Georgia and Texas.
Instead, Trump talks about voter fraud and Supreme Court rulings and voter intimidation. He's shouting that it's going to be stolen, because he knows he's losing.
We should take this very seriously, because it represents a genuine threat to our election. He's shouting that the election is going to be stolen because he wants to steal it if he can.
But even more important to Trump is ruining the election itself, disrupting it the way he disrupted the debate. Even if he can't hold onto power, he wants to avoid the humiliating spectacle of public defeat. Trump knows he can't win. He's looking for the DQ. You saw him last night. He's already taken out his mouthpiece.
cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog