The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump acts like he knows he’s losing — and he’s leaning into it

President Trump participates in the final presidential debate in Nashville on Thursday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

It’s hard to say whether it was the addition of a mute button that held President Trump back in the first part of Thursday’s debate, or whether his own advisers finally convinced him that “overbearing jerk” was not a winning political persona. Either way, Trump turned in a better, saner, more restful performance than in the first debate. Better late than never, of course, but I’m not sure how much better, given how much ground he has to make up with less than two weeks to go.

After the humbling experience of 2016, I am loath to proclaim Joseph R. Biden the next president of the United States. What I do feel confident in saying is, first, as Ross Douthat of the New York Times has already pointed out, that Trump acts like someone who is trying to lose the election, haphazardly flitting from message to message without any coherent, overarching theme. And second, that Trump acts like someone who knows he is losing.

The first tell came during the debate last month with Biden, when Trump was asked about the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court and responded, “We have plenty of time. Even if we did it after the election itself. I have a lot of time after the election, as you know.” These are not the words of a confident warrior; they are the words of a man who has already begun contemplating a lame-duck end to his first term.

In the weeks leading up to Election Day, President Trump has repeatedly talked — at times jokingly — about losing the 2020 election. (Video: The Washington Post)

The latest signs came this week, when he preemptively started attacking Thursday’s moderator, whom he had earlier praised. It was hard not to suspect that Trump was just looking for a scapegoat in advance to justify a failure he was already anticipating.

There was a moment in the debate when it seemed Trump might save himself. “We have to open our country,” he said. “I’ve said it often, the cure cannot be worse than the problem itself, and that’s what’s happening.” It looked as if Trump was prepared to spend 90 minutes having a semi-serious discussion about serious topics, such as the trade-offs we’re making to control the pandemic. But he couldn’t keep it up; by the end of the debate, he reverted to form, taunting Biden to “Say it. Say it.” about a $15 minimum wage and trying to dodge questions about race in America by changing the topic to Hunter Biden’s adventures abroad.

This only brought home what Trump makes obvious every day: He is not the n-dimensional chess player of conservative legend. In fact, he isn’t even able to correctly perceive his own personal self-interest. Which complicates his sales pitch, even to conservatives.

Four years ago, Trump’s opponents within the conservative movement pointed out that Trump was an unprincipled con man. This argument didn’t work well, because of course his supporters knew that his affected Christianity was not merely new, but breathtakingly shallow; that he had no firm ideological commitments; that he would slap his name on anything, no matter how cheap or sleazy; and that he stiffed his vendors whenever he thought he could get away with it.

“So what?” his supporters said. They didn’t need to trust him. All they needed was for him to understand that if he didn’t deliver on policy, they’d demolish him at the next election.

This allegedly hard-nosed realism in fact contained a heroic and untested assumption: that Trump would understand what his political incentives were. Trump has spent the past year systematically falsifying that hypothesis.

It didn’t take a scientific genius to understand in early March that the United States had been handed a very lucky break: We’d been seeded with covid-19 later than Europe, so if we acted quickly, we could escape relatively lightly. It didn’t require an economist to understand that pandemics are bad for the economy, particularly if you let them get out of control. It didn’t require any great altruist to know that voters don’t like dying.

No, it just took someone of ordinary judgment and modest cunning to grasp that the president’s best chance for reelection was coherent, consistent leadership on covid-19, instead of alternately claiming the virus was going away on its own and ranting about miracle cures like some late-night huckster on a third-rate cable channel. Unfortunately, we didn’t have someone like that in the Oval Office. We just had Trump.

Which is why it looks like we’ll have Trump for only a few months longer. Republicans may lose the Senate, thanks to their decision to stand behind their president. His party faction will pay a price, too, as the rest of the party blames them for the debacle. That faction will be fighting to place the blame elsewhere — on a stab in the back from establishment types, on the biased media, on anyone except the guy who most deserves it: the self-proclaimed genius who couldn’t even beat Sleepy Joe Biden.

Read more:

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E.J. Dionne Jr.: Trump lost the debate by widening the empathy gap

The Post’s View: Trump’s America in 2024

Alyssa Rosenberg: Trump is definitely not a ‘typical politician.’ America could use one right now.

Alexandra Petri: The candidates’ closing messages to the American people