By Jacob Vito
Many emotions rode high during the final presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden this past Thursday. But by its conclusion, one feeling rang true amongst them all: déjà vu.
This was, after all, a retreading of old ground for both candidates. Both had debated each other before, and the focus of discussion this time around was ultimately similar to their first confrontation on Sept. 29.
Although many of their discussions felt similar, what each candidate chose to focus on during these final days of the campaign helps to show what their strategies may be for the final stretch of the race.
To be fair, a number of changes were made before the debate even began. The Committee on Presidential Debates, the organization that has helped to coordinate and run all the Biden-Trump debates, had earlier announced a change to their formula.
Such a change was designed as a counter to Trump’s strategy of interrupting and talking over his opponents. Though both candidates did their best to avoid the harsh optics of literally being silenced on the stage, Trump was abruptly muted in one instance during a back-and-forth on healthcare.
As for the discussion itself, the topics of the debate were wide-ranging and quite varied. Though the initial topic of the conversation focused on the coronavirus, the discussion moved to healthcare, energy production, economic struggles and fossil fuels. Child separation at the border was also discussed, as well as recent scandals both campaigns have found themselves in.
Easily, the most striking contrast of the debate was the seemingly flipped energy levels of its participants. While Trump was certainly more restrained with his outbursts, likely due to the threat of a microphone muting, Biden came to the debate far more energetic than usual.
Trump was, though certainly calmer, not without his trademark style. Throughout the night, he attempted to focus on his opponent’s recent statements on a transition away from oil as well as the Biden family’s alleged connections to Burisma — which are roundly considered untrue.
Yet, during the event, the biggest difference between this debate and others was ultimately Joe Biden’s more aggressive countering of Trump’s claims. This version of Biden was far quicker to respond to Trump’s misinformation and far more likely to press him on topics he was avoiding.
Biden also claimed what was undoubtedly the highlight of the night: When President Trump responded to a question about COVID-19 recovery that, “We’re learning to live with it,” Biden snapped back, countering that narrative by rebutting, “People are learning to die with it.”
However, Biden’s best moments were during his appeals pointed directly to those Americans watching behind the screen.
“You folks at home will have an empty chair at the kitchen table,” Biden spoke, directly looking into the camera. He then called out to “That man or wife going to bed tonight and reaching over to try and touch, out of habit, where their wife or husband was whose gone.”
When all was said and done, Biden’s new approach seems to have resonated across the country. A CNN post-debate poll found that 53% of those who watched the final debate declared Joe Biden the victor, with only 39% saying the same of President Trump. In a normal election, this would be a wonderful linchpin for solidifying Biden’s solid lead in the polls.
If only this were a normal election.
A recent Quinnipiac poll found that a record-low 5 percent of voters have yet to pick a candidate, a number half as large as it was in 2016. On top of this, models drawn through the polling aggregator, FiveThirtyEight, calculate a Biden victory in 87 percent of potential electoral outcomes.
The odds for a Trump electoral victory on election day are becoming increasingly slim. Biden’s hefty lead is corroborated by far too many polls to be dismissed by the president as a hoax and based on the actions of his campaign, he seems to realize this.
The Trump team’s strategy over the last few months doesn’t really make sense through the traditional understanding of vote-courting. There is a reason the president’s references, during this debate, to neo-fascist and hyper nationalistic talking points, aren’t a part of traditional plans to gain the support of the American moderate. Often, such language ends up ostracizing as many people as it attracts.
However, it seems perfectly rational from a different perspective: one where Donald Trump is no longer expecting nor trying to win. Instead, he is potentially pursuing a far more subversive strategy.
The reason President Trump has been questioning the election, speaking directly at the Proud Boys, and telling his supporters to be independent “poll watchers” is not because he wants a winning voter base. Instead, in 2020, it seems he rather wants a fearful and loyal one.
The most logical conclusion to be drawn from the dog whistles and calls for unrest by the president is that his winning strategy is to make enough unrest to call the election into question. Thus, through either the supreme court or executive order, he will assume the legitimacy to invalidate it.
After all, Trump already has a history of not only doubting the validity of the upcoming election, but also calling for violence through his Twitter account, and through official statements, as seen in A Vox analysis.
Trump’s actions suggest that he does not prefer to have a majority, but instead would rather have enough of the American population to see him as a final bastion of freedom. From there, he can convince his supporters to view any election that shows him losing as an attack on America itself that they must personally counter.
And in truth, it’s working. A study from Politico found that Democrats and especially Republicans are not only growing more open to politically motivated violence but also are increasingly coming to expect it.
Make no mistake, Donald Trump is priming Americans for political violence. He is goading them towards electoral disbelief and mass protests and the deadly shootings that seem to often follow.
In truth, Trump likely doesn’t care about the American people. His open disdain for the millions that live in what he referred to in the debate as “Democrat cities” communicates as much.
Instead, he is concerned only with power.
And in his eyes, if power requires a host of radicalized supporters, if it requires open calls for violence, if it requires the crippling of democracy itself, then so be it.
However, there is still time and hope.
Though Donald Trump’s polling numbers may be irrelevant to his greater strategy, they do show an important point: the majority of Americans still disagree with him.
Because of this, Trump cannot expect to disregard the law during this election cycle and still maintain power. These weeks will be a window through which he can be removed without the need for any protests or violence.
There is still a chance for a peaceful transition of power from the president, and this election is it.
Unlike America’s expected enemies in countries far away, Donald Trump is on the ballot this year, and it is an avenue for him to be removed from power. If for no other reason than the preservation of the republic, he must be voted out of office this Nov. 3.
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