The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Partially true: ‘You’re the president. You’re not like someone’s crazy uncle.’

President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden appeared at separate town halls on Oct. 15, the night that was supposed to be their second debate. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump got boxed around the ears at his NBC town hall Thursday night.

After refusing to confront former vice president Joe Biden in a virtual debate, Trump in his solo outing sounded just as he did in the in-person debate on Sept. 29 — unhinged, incoherent and angry. He feigned ignorance of and refused to denounce QAnon (even praising it for being against pedophilia) and tried to brush off his retweet concerning a crazy conspiracy theory about former president Barack Obama, Biden and Navy SEALs (don’t ask).

“I know nothing about it. That was a retweet. That was an opinion from somebody. I’ll put it out there — people can decide,” Trump said. Host Savannah Guthrie responded, “I don’t get that. You’re the president. You’re not like someone’s crazy uncle.” His niece Mary L. Trump, who wrote a bestselling book about his lying, narcissism and cruelty, humorously tweeted in response:

In other words, he is currently president but also is by any layperson’s observation irrational, petulant and utterly unfit — the proverbial “crazy uncle” whom no one wants to sit next to at the family Thanksgiving dinner. And as with white supremacists, Trump finds it impossible to reject possible supporters, no matter how aberrant and reprehensible they might be.

Trump still falsely insists that mail-in ballots are not legitimate, that we are “rounding the corner” on covid-19 (repeating his lie that we have a favorable death rate compared with other countries) and that Obama spied on him. He has not come up with a health-care plan despite repeated promises to provide an alternative to Obamacare, which he wants the Supreme Court to strike down in its entirety. And he wouldn’t say whether he took a covid-19 test on the day of the first debate (which was required by the debate rules).

Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center warns that the president is doing the work of our foreign adversaries by undermining the legitimacy of the U.S. election. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Evan Vucci/AP/The Washington Post)

Independent of any specific answer, Trump’s ranting, bellicose and opaque responses only cemented the impression he gave in the first debate. “Crazy uncle” actually is not too far off the mark. It is tiresome to listen to the same lies, the same evasions, the same self-reverential proclamations. He has nothing new to say, just more whackadoodle accusations and insults. He is now equal parts repugnant and boring.

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Meanwhile on ABC, former vice president Joe Biden’s town hall lasted 90 minutes (compared with Trump’s 60 minutes) and offered long, policy-rich answers on criminal justice (acknowledging that parts of the 1994 crime bill were wrong); covid-19 and a potential vaccine (he’ll listen to the scientists); and the Supreme Court (he’ll clarify his position on adding seats and other reforms after the vote on Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who he accurately said did not answer many questions).

On foreign policy, Biden said, "We find ourselves in a position where we’re more isolated in the world than we’ve ever been. Our ‘go it alone, America first’ has made America alone.” He continued: “You have Iran closer to having enough nuclear material to build a bomb. North Korea has more bombs and missiles available to it. We find ourselves where our NATO allies are publicly saying they can’t count on us.” He pledged to reverse Trump’s directive banning transgender Americans from serving in the military.

Where Trump mocks masks, Biden promises to use persuasion. “I’d go to every mayor, I’d go to every councilman, I’d go to every local official and say, ‘mandate the mask.’” He added, “The words of a president matter.”

His most compelling answer might have come on race, when he explained his devotion to criminal justice reform and wealth accumulation for Black Americans:

Even after the debate ended, Biden hung around to answer more questions. He has come a long way from the primaries — when he used to cut himself off as his time ran out. He is arguably more confident, relaxed and fluent than he has ever been. The more unraveled and agitated Trump becomes, the more presidential Biden sounds.

Without the constant interruptions that marred the first debate, Biden was focused, articulate and thoughtful. Once more, he demonstrated his inherent decency. Asked about testing for the coronavirus, he declared: “I just think it’s — it’s just decency. To be able to determine whether or not you are — you’re clear.” He went on: “I’m less concerned about me than the people, the guys with the cameras, the people working in the, you know, the Secret Service guys you drive up with, all those people.” He is in every respect the anti-Trump.

Trump fared even worse in the comparison with Biden than he did in the first debate. Voters could literally turn the channel, tune out Trump’s noise and histrionics in favor of a calm, logical, wonkish candidate who knows what he is talking about. Biden certainly must hope that is a metaphor for the choice facing voters.

Read more:

Alyssa Rosenberg: At Trump’s NBC town hall, reality strikes back at a reality-show president

Fred Hiatt: The most illuminating answer Biden gave in his town hall

George F. Will: The election’s winner will confront a disorderly world. Which candidate do you want in charge?

Michael Gerson: A conservative’s case for Biden

Karen Tumulty: The best thing Senate Republicans can do to save themselves on Election Day

Josh Rogin: How Trump can truly honor Kayla Mueller