Tuesday night's first presidential debate was not, to borrow the apt phrasing of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., exactly on par with the Lincoln-Douglas contests of 1858. Democratic nominee Joe Biden's dispositional frailty, ignitable temper and pandering to his base of America-hating leftist insurrectionists were on galling display for all to see. But President Donald Trump, hamstrung by a two-front assault from an irascible foe and a most immoderate moderator, failed to persuade undecided suburban female voters with a performance best described as hectoring bordering on raw machismo. Trump's clear meritoriousness on the substantive issues unfortunately will be, to the extent it has not already been, all but overshadowed.
The calendar has moved to October; we are now one month away from an election that partisans of both sides feel is the most important one of our lifetimes. And with the stubborn, seemingly immovable national horserace polling average being what it is (and what it has been for most of this year), Trump must face reality: His political life is in grave peril, and there is a real risk he might become the first one-term president since George H.W. Bush. This is not exactly a novel insight, but, in the aftermath of Tuesday night's demoralizing performance, it is time for the president to start acting as if he understands the gravity the present moment requires.
Partisans of both sides are indeed correct: This is a tremendously important presidential election. The antifa/Black Lives Matter-dominated American left, to which Biden is clearly in hock following his dissembling nonanswers on such radical propositions as vindictive "packing" of the Supreme Court, has emerged as a historically destructive force in American political life. The leaders of these movements rarely conceal their dripping disdain for the American republic, waxing poetic about violent insurrection and regime overthrow, on the one hand, and the coercive implementation of a Marxist, racially divisive dystopia, on the other hand. These dyed-in-the-wool zealots, from which Biden and running mate Sen. Kamala Harris have made no attempt to credibly disassociate, represent an existential threat to the American regime and the American way of life.
By contrast, Trump, despite the hysterical howls of his sundry foes, has an innate, palpable love of the greatness of the United States of America. Amid the anarchic rampages gripping America's urban corridors and the delusional idiocy that was this summer's paeans to "defund the police," Trump delivered an impassioned Independence Day speech at Mount Rushmore in righteous defense of what Lincoln so famously called the "last best hope of earth." More recently, in a nascent attempt to push back against the divisive, racist gobbledygook that is "critical race theory," Trump announced a long-overdue "1776 Commission" to promote patriotic education in America. The juxtaposition is striking: This election, as Claremont Institute Chairman Thomas D. Klingenstein recently wrote, amounts to a "choice between a man who believes America is good and a man who is controlled by a movement that believes America is bad."
Over the course of this presidency, Trump's approval ratings have generally dwindled while the national spotlight fixates upon his peculiarities and his sheer force of personality, and they have generally risen while the national spotlight hones in on the horror show that is the far left. Trump's closing argument in this election's final stanza must reflect this. While Trumpian excesses to rally the base at campaign events are expected (and perhaps beneficial), the president must make a concerted effort in subsequent debates, and perhaps in other oratory settings, to paint the starkest possible contrast between him and Biden on all the issues that matter to the American electorate.
Trump supports law and order and a restoration of the primacy of the rule of law; Biden, kowtowing to his party's leftmost flank, can barely condemn anarchic insurrection. Trump believes in the moral agency of the individual; Biden believes in intersectional group hierarchies and the pernicious myth of "systemic racism." Trump believes that the Chinese Communist Party is America's number one geopolitical foe this century; Biden has spent an entire career propping up that most rapacious and hegemonic of regimes. Trump believes in an immigration system, and an economy, that prioritizes the interests of the American citizen; Biden -- risible invocations of his blue-collar Scranton, Pennsylvania, upbringing to the contrary -- has spent decades as a leading shill for the sovereignty-undermining neoliberal order.
Yes, the polls were off in 2016 -- but they were not that far off. Trump supporters simply cannot look at the present state of polling and sleep well at night. It is high time for the president to fully grasp the magnitude of the current doldrums, focus on the high ground of substance and fight for his political life.