One of the defining moments of the Donald Trump Political Experience came on a debate stage in March 2016, when the frontrunner bragged about his penis.
“Look at those hands,” Trump said, holding up his hands, which were at that moment under assault from Sen. Marco Rubio for reasons too stupid to recount. “Are they small hands? And he referred to my hands if they’re small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee you.”
Across more than 20 debates in five years, Trump has redefined presidential debates, turning the relatively boring deliberations into confusing entertainment. He very possibly wouldn’t be president without them: They’re the format that first put a celebrity on the same level as a handful of senators and governors and gave him the leeway to tell America that he was in control of our attentions now and would take things from there.
On Thursday night, this element of the Trump era will very likely be coming to an end: The second and final debate with Joe Biden is probably the last official Trump Debate we’ll see.
The circumstances for Thursday are quintessential Trump Debate standards. Trump has complained about the moderator; Trump has complained about the question topics; Trump has complained about the format; Trump, after withdrawing from the second debate after organizers decided to make it virtual, has created a weekslong drama over whether or not he will even show up. And all the anticipation around the debate hinges on the same thing that has been true for basically every Trump Debate since the first in 2015: Can he possibly be as outrageous this time? What will he do next?
The downside for Trump is that over the years, the question has gotten progressively less giddy, progressively more dismal. Trump got really bad reviews in public opinion polls for his first debate with Biden, a full mess that is memorable chiefly for how incomprehensible it was because of all of the president’s interruptions (and for the president’s wink at a white nationalist group). The debate organizers literally changed the rules for Thursday night’s debate to mute microphones while the other candidate is talking during some segments. Debates don’t typically have much impact on candidate support, but this one did seem to have at least some effect in the short term in boosting support for Biden.
There is no sign Trump plans on doing anything different Thursday, despite some near pleading from friendly Fox News hosts and others to consider doing anything different.
Which makes sense, because…that’s how this has always gone. You can create many compelling theories for why Trump got to the White House in 2016, and why he could keep it in 2020, but a huge part of it has always been his persona. In 2016, enough voters in enough states wanted the yeller they saw on TV, at rallies, and at debates. They wanted the guy who had all the nicknames and a knack for exposing the weakness of his primary opponents, ultimately the guy who showed up to a presidential debate after the Access Hollywood video with a group of women who had accused his opponent’s husband of sexual misconduct. Trump may’ve been obnoxious, but he was obnoxious for them.
And, to the people who came to love him, Trump was fun. It was fun for just enough Republican primary voters to watch Trump belittle the party elite on debate stages in 2015, it was fun to not know what he would say next. His most high-profile debate fight of the 2016 cycle was not with Hillary Clinton or with his Republican opponents, but with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly.
"She gets out and she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions," Trump said in an interview after the first debate he participated in, which she hosted in August 2015. "You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever. In my opinion, she was off base."
This was a really wild thing to say! Many people were — reasonably! — very offended! It was also, to enough people, a blissful release from the buttoned-up, extremely written presidency of Barack Obama. Here on TV was someone eager to mix shit up, theoretically for their benefit.
That magic just seems to have faded. After nearly two dozen of these, there’s not that much shock anymore, and there’s not that much fun in being shocked. After five years of omnipresence, the president may be overexposed.
There are caveats here, there’s a world where the Trump Debate returns: He could lose in two weeks and decide to run again in 2024 (when he’ll be about Biden’s age now). He could find a way to debate strangers regularly on the much-predicted-but-still-fantastical Trump TV.
But in all likelihood, this is it. The debate stage helped give Trump the legitimacy and platform to take over the Republican Party and ultimately get to the White House. Now the debate is a set piece for predictable outrage, the incarnation of an unfocused campaign ambling wildly toward an end.
Trump is left insisting how horrifying the alternative would be. Biden, he told a rally crowd this week in Erie, Pennsylvania, is too dry, too unexciting. He would bring “boredom.”
“If you had Sleepy Joe, nobody's going to be interested in politics anymore.” ●