Interruptions, accusations, chaos: Trump trolled the debate stage

The Critique


Interruptions, accusations, chaos: Trump trolled the debate stage

September 29, 2020 at 11:53 p.m. EDT


                                     TRUMP AT HIS CALMEST

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and President Trump argued against each other in a tense debate on Sept. 29. (Blair Guild/The Washington Post)
September 29, 2020 at 11:53 p.m. EDT
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Donald Trump came to heckle. He came to interrupt and to pontificate and to flail his arms, batting away questions and facts in a chaotic fury. He was a boor and a troll, holding up his stubby mitts in an angry pantomime as he tried to halt the words coming from former vice president Joe Biden’s mouth. Trump seemed to believe that with a single rude hand gesture, one that he regularly uses to assert his dominance, he could hold back the truth so he could be free to spin and hype and vent.

It was an exhausting mess that spun beyond moderator Chris Wallace’s control and outside the bounds of anything that could reasonably be called a debate. It was a 90-minute display of a president’s testosterone-fueled, unmanaged rage and insecurity.

First Trump-Biden meeting marked by constant interruptions by Trump

Biden came to debate, God bless him. Trump arrived seemingly hopped up on grievance and indignation, determined to just bellow his way through the evening without ever having to answer a question or speak with clarity and sincerity to the home audience. He raised issues with Biden about his son Hunter’s foreign business dealings and then refused to let his political rival answer. He yammered about fake news and Hillary Clinton. He talked over both Biden and Wallace. He talked so much that it became impossible to even understand what he was talking about. He talked ceaselessly, and yet he said very little. He talked so much it was as though he was trying to pummel the viewer into submission with his words.

President Trump came to heckle, not debate.
President Trump came to heckle, not debate. (Julio Cortez/AP)

“Will you shut up, man?” Biden said in a moment of dismay and exasperation. It was a plea that surely channeled the desires of a significant percentage of the viewing audience.


It was awful. It was miserable. And one wished desperately that there were commercials during the grotesque spectacle if only to give someone a chance to throw cold water on the president. But there were no breaks. It was an endless display, and it was frustrating to hear Wallace calling the president “sir” as he pleaded with him to adhere to the rules to which he had agreed. Sir. Trump did not deserve that nicety because he did not come to the debate bearing the mantle of the presidency. He came with the demeanor of a thug.

Surely no one thought the evening would be dignified and civil. That’s not the way in which Trump gins up ratings and attracts attention. Bellicosity is his rule. But Tuesday evening, Trump was exquisitely inexhaustible. He stepped to his lectern with a scowl and a jutting jaw. Biden walked out with an expression of geniality. Because of coronavirus precautions, the audience was limited to only about 80 people sitting socially distanced in wooden chairs.

It was a rare sight to see the entire Trump clan wearing masks as they entered the Samson Pavilion, which is owned by Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic. They removed them upon sitting. Jill Biden wore a mask as well. She left hers on as she took her seat in the audience. The stage was set with the trappings of democracy. The carpet was blue with a ring of white stars. A large eagle with a banner reading “The Union and the Constitution Forever” was draped overhead.

In many ways, the setting was one that should have inspired a sense of calm and a more conversational tone. There was even a certain sobriety to the location, which at one point had temporarily been turned into a covid-19 hospital. There was no need to yell with such a small audience. There were no bursts of applause, laughter or cheers to fuel a candidate’s energy. One might have thought it was the perfect occasion for a reasonable back-and-forth.

Joe Biden came to debate.
Joe Biden came to debate. (Matthew Hatcher/Bloomberg)

Even the lack of the usual greeting, an opening handshake, was a reminder that these are trying times. Human connections, at their most fundamental level, have been frayed. One might have thought that these would have served as reminders or encouragement to speak seriously, to speak compassionately.

Confidence Interval: Will Texas Go Blue In 2020?

Texas Flag at Veterans’ Memorial Park, Port Arthur, Texas





Welcome to another episode of Confidence Interval, where we make a persuasive case for a hot take … and then reveal how confident we really feel about the idea. This time, politics podcast host and producer Galen Druke asks if this could be the year Democrats win Texas for the first time since 1976.

Galen Druke is FiveThirtyEight’s podcast producer and reporter. 

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.  

Five things we learned from this year’s primaries

Five things we learned from this year's primaries

Through a pandemic, protests and partisanship, voters in all but four states have picked party nominees for November’s general election, setting up the clashes that will determine the shape of American politics over the next two years.

Their choices have sent clear signals about where each party’s electorate stands, and what the two warring factions have in common: Both Democratic and Republican voters want change — though there is little agreement on what, exactly, ought to be changed.

As the first general election ballots go out, here are the lessons we learned from the 2020 primary season:

It’s the year of the woman

A century after the ratification of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, women are running for office in record numbers.

The two major parties have nominated 296 women to run for U.S. House seats, blowing away the previous record set in 2018, at 234. Forty-seven districts feature two women running against each other, according to a tally maintained by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.

More women — 60 — ran for seats in the Senate than ever before. Voters in four states — Iowa, Maine, Wyoming and West Virginia — will decide between two female Senate candidates in November.

It helps that both parties are making special efforts to recruit women — albeit for different reasons. Democrats relied on women to win back the House majority in 2018, when 24 of the 43 candidates who flipped Republican-held seats were women. Republicans, who fear a gender gap they cannot overcome, have made a point of recruiting women candidates, though not all have survived their primaries.

All politics is (still) local

It is very hard to beat a sitting incumbent in a party primary. It is easier when that incumbent has lost touch with his or her district.

Eight members of Congress lost bids for renomination this year. In most cases, those who will find themselves out of a job come January were ousted by voters who thought they had gone Washington.

In the midst of a global pandemic, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) did not travel from his Maryland home to his Yonkers-based district for several months. GOP insiders said Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), who lost to conservative activist Lauren Boebert, rarely traveled home.

Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) lost to Cori Bush, who began her political activism in protests against police brutality in the wake of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Bush made an issue out of Clay’s absence from protests this summer over the deaths of Black people in Minnesota and Kentucky at the hands of police.

Reps. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.) and Denver Riggleman (R-Va.) each lost renomination after breaking with their constituents over hot-button policy issues. Lipinski, perhaps the last anti-abortion rights Democrat in Congress, lost to a progressive activist who had support from major abortion rights groups. Riggleman lost a renominating convention, restricted to only the most die-hard conservative activists, after he had the audacity to preside over a same-sex wedding.

Some of the long-serving incumbents who held off challenges took constituent services more seriously. Reps. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) and Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), two more House committee chairs who faced progressive activists in their primaries, each campaigned hard to win another term.

The GOP is shifting right

Some election cycles mark ideological shifts in one party or another. The 1994 wave ushered in a new generation of hard-nosed Republicans in the image of Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). The 2010 wave brought the Tea Party to Congress.

This year, a host of Republicans poised to win office in November will make the Tea Party look like genteel moderates.

Boebert is just one of a new brand of arch-conservatives who are likely headed to Congress next year, some of whom have embraced the fringe and fantastical QAnon conspiracy.

In other districts, candidates backed by national Republicans lost primary elections to more conservative challengers. Promising Republican recruits like Pierce Bush in Texas, former Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti in Illinois and Earl Granville in Pennsylvania all lost Republican nominations in potential swing districts to more conservative rivals.

The Tea Party’s arrival in Congress ushered in the Freedom Caucus, a group that caused headaches for Republican Speakers John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). The next wave of Republicans will make life just as difficult, albeit in a much different way, for GOP leadership.


Trump is everything

President Trump loves touting his support among the Republican base, and he is right. The GOP is held together less by an ideology than to a fealty to their party leader; more Republican-registered voters say they are a supporter of Trump (49 percent) than of the party itself (37 percent), according to a recent poll conducted for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal.

Among candidates running for Congress, that number may be even more skewed.

Trump has appeared in a quarter of all advertisements run by Republican candidates this year, according to data maintained by political scientists who run the Wesleyan Media Project. That is more often than any issue mentioned in GOP ads except taxes.

Trump’s popularity among his party’s core supporters has given him the room to diverge from the ideology that has driven the GOP for decades. He has broken with past Republican presidents on free trade, America’s role in the world, spending and deficits.

Trump’s time in power is limited to either the next few months or the next four and a half years. But even out of office, he is almost certainly not going to give up the Twitter feed that has become his bully pulpit. The party of Trump now is likely to be the party of Trump for years to come.

Absentees are king

The share of Americans who voted by mail has roughly doubled this century, from 10 percent in 2000 to almost 21 percent in the 2016 election, according to Pew Research Center.

Some states, like Washington, Utah and Colorado, have already shifted their elections entirely to the mail. A huge majority of voters in states like Arizona, Florida and Nevada also use mail-in voting.

The coronavirus pandemic is hastening those trends across every other state — even in some where absentee voting has never been a major part of the political culture. State after state has set new records for the number of voters casting ballots in the mail, in some cases beating their old records five, 10 or 15 times over.

Most states are well equipped to handle the surge in volume, and many begin counting ballots even before the polls close. But others are not — New York took more than a month to count the absentee ballots cast in its June primary, and Alaska took a week to begin opening their absentee ballots.

The two parties like absentee ballots: Knowing who has returned their ballot gives the parties the ability to focus their scarce resources to the population that has yet to vote.

But as Trump raises the unsubstantiated specter of fraud in the mail — and even urges his own supporters to vote twice, a felony — the heavy reliance on mail ballots has become a factor fraught with dread. In a close race, absentee ballots counted long after Election Day will prove fodder for those on the losing side, and the Russian bot farms determined to undermine confidence in American democracy.

Biden’s Approval Rating, G.O.P. Recasts Trump: This Week in the 2020 Race


Biden’s Approval Rating, G.O.P. Recasts Trump: This Week in the 2020 Race

President Trump during the final night of the Republican National Convention at the White House on Thursday.
President Trump during the final night of the Republican National Convention at the White House on Thursday.Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times
Astead W. Herndon
  • Aug. 29, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

Welcome to our weekly analysis of the state of the 2020 campaign.

  • An ABC News/Ipsos poll released at the beginning of the week found that Joe Biden’s favorability rating had risen by five percentage points, to 45 percent, in the wake of the Democratic National Convention.
  • That was driven particularly by Democrats: 86 percent of partisans expressed a positive opinion of him, up seven points from Ipsos’ previous poll from the week before the Democratic convention.
  • Franklin and Marshall College poll of Pennsylvania, conducted during the week of the D.N.C., found Mr. Biden leading President Trump in the key swing state by seven points.
  • Pennsylvania voters tended to say Mr. Biden was better suited to the job of president in various ways — though handling the economy was a notable exception. Forty-eight percent said Mr. Trump would be a better steward of the economy, compared with 44 percent who chose Mr. Biden.
Joseph R. Biden Jr. accepted the Democratic nomination for president at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del., last week.
Joseph R. Biden Jr. accepted the Democratic nomination for president at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del., last week.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Two weeks of back-to-back conventions are finally behind us, weeks during which the candidates tried to define themselves and their opponents. Mr. Biden, the Democratic nominee, pledged to heal a suffering nation by being an empathetic and decent man, while also managing to blow a hole in the Republican attack line that he was senile and could not string two sentences together.

President Trump, in a very long speech, did little to acknowledge the coronavirus pandemic, warning instead of what would become of the country’s economy and “greatness” if Mr. Biden were elected.

Now, the next big moments where voters will get the chance to compare and contrast the candidates will be in the debates, kicking off on Sept. 29.

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The final night of the Republican convention on Thursday.
The final night of the Republican convention on Thursday.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Republican officials involved in Mr. Trump’s convention planning promised to deliver a positive vision for the country, and a week’s worth of programming that would look like a “normal” convention to people watching from home, i.e. more live speeches, less reliance on videos, than the Democrats used.

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President Trump, during his convention speech, did little to acknowledge the coronavirus pandemic, warning instead of what would become of the country’s economy and “greatness” if Joe Biden were elected.

They did, and didn’t. The positive vision for the country was possible only insofar as they mostly ignored the reality of the pandemic that has so far killed 180,000 Americans. Many speakers, like the president’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, referred to the virus in the past tense. And there was little acknowledgment from the marquee speakers of the distress that has swept the country in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the more recent police shooting of Jacob Blake.

Several speakers told stories of hardship and pain and described Mr. Trump’s attempts to comfort or support them. But such remarks mixed with fear-mongering by others about what would happen if Mr. Biden were elected. “Joe Biden is not the savior of America’s soul — he is the destroyer of America’s jobs, and if given the chance, he will be the destroyer of American greatness,” Mr. Trump said. As for live speeches, almost the entire program was prerecorded inside the Mellon Auditorium, save for the headlining speeches each night that took place in front of live, mostly maskless audiences.

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Michael Cohen blasts the ‘real Donald Trump’ in new Democratic attack ad

This file combination photo shows President Trump and attorney Michael Cohen. (AP Photo)
This file combination photo shows President Trump and attorney Michael Cohen. (AP Photo) (AP)

By Colby ItkowitzAugust 27, 2020 at 6:01 a.m. EDTAdd to list

President Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, stars in a new Democratic attack ad in which he describes Trump as a liar and warns Americans not to trust him.

Cohen, who was by Trump’s side for more than a decade, assails Trump from the perspective of someone intimately acquainted with the president’s personal and financial history.

“I was complicit in helping conceal the real Donald Trump,” Cohen says. “I’m here to tell you he can’t be trusted — and you shouldn’t believe a word he utters.”


More from The Post

The Senate: Ranking the Top Dozen Best Targets

Blogger’s note: One wonders why the Senate Republicans are: A. digging in on support of Trump and opposing big aid package to those hit hardest by pandemic B. Falling behind in more and more Senate races because of A.

Establishment Republicans relieved by Kansas primary result; rating changes in Georgia and Iowa



— National Republicans breathed a sigh of relief on Tuesday night, as Rep. Roger Marshall (R, KS-1) beat 2018 gubernatorial nominee Kris Kobach (R) in the Kansas Senate primary. Practically speaking, the Kansas Senate race went from being a potentially major Democratic offensive target to one where the Republicans have a very clear edge.

— Kansas remains Likely Republican in our ratings.

— We rank the top dozen Senate seats in order of their likelihood of flipping. Of the 12, 10 are held by Republicans, underscoring the amount of defense that the GOP will need to play in order to hold their majority.

— We have two Senate rating changes, one in favor of each party.

Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate rating changes

Senator Old Rating New Rating
Georgia Special Leans Republican Likely Republican
Joni Ernst (R-IA) Leans Republican Toss-up

Map 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings   This map is insane; Larry Sabato, what’s going on.

GOP leadership overjoyed by Kansas primary result

In a cycle where the Republicans’ list of defensive responsibilities in the Senate has seemed to get longer and longer, GOP leaders must be extremely happy to be able to effectively cross one off the list. Rep. Roger Marshall (R, KS-1) defeated 2018 gubernatorial nominee and conservative hardliner Kris Kobach (R) Tuesday evening, making it much easier for Republicans to defend the open seat and frustrating national Democrats, who spent real money in Kansas to try to help Kobach win the primary.

Kobach kicked away the Kansas governorship last cycle, losing a very winnable race to now-Gov. Laura Kelly (D). Establishment Republicans were so petrified of Kobach losing a Senate general election that they first implored Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) to come home and run for the seat and then tried to get President Trump to back Marshall against Kobach, who Trump endorsed in his very narrow 2018 gubernatorial primary victory. As it was, Trump stayed out, but Marshall won anyway.

Democrats have a respectable nominee, party-switching state Sen. Barbara Bollier (D), but Marshall fits the traditional Kansas GOP mold much better than Kobach. This is the second time Marshall has beaten a further-right Republican in a contentious primary; he also knocked off then-Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R, KS-1) in 2016.

Despite signs of Democratic growth in the Kansas City suburbs and a few other places in the state, Kansas remains a Republican state: The president carried it by about 20 points in 2016. Even if Trump significantly underperforms in the state, he is still very likely to carry it, meaning that Bollier will need to attract at least some crossover support from Trump voters to win. That would have been an easier task against Kobach than Marshall. Kansas also has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1932, despite electing many Democratic governors in that same timeframe: A state’s baseline partisanship is often easier to overcome in state races as opposed to federal ones.

We’re keeping the Kansas Senate race as Likely Republican, matching our presidential rating there, but Marshall should be fine.

This is a good development for Senate Republicans, although they still have a lot of defense to play in other states. Speaking of…

The big picture

As we examine the race for the Senate majority, we thought it’d be worthwhile to rank the dozen seats we see as the most competitive from most to least likely to change hands. As we see it right now, 10 of the 12 most vulnerable seats are held by Republicans, even as Democrats are defending the seat likeliest to flip, Alabama.

1. Alabama (D)
2. Colorado (R)
3. Arizona (R)
4. Maine (R)
5. North Carolina (R)
6. Iowa (R)
7. Montana (R)
8. Georgia (Regular) (R)
9. Michigan (D)
10. Texas (R)
11. Georgia (Special) (R)
12. Alaska (R)

Before we explain the rankings (and a couple of rating changes), we wanted to explain how presidential partisanship plays into them. While presidential and Senate results will differ, presidential and Senate outcomes have come further into alignment in recent years.

Table 2 shows the same ranking of Senate seats in terms of likelihood of flipping, but we also added three additional columns.

Table 2: Presidential scenarios in top 12 Senate races

The first is the actual 2016 presidential margin by state, when Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by two points. The second is a hypothetical scenario in which Joe Biden would win by five points nationally, or three points better than Clinton, and the third is a hypothetical where Biden would win by 10 points nationally, or eight points better than Clinton. A positive number is a Democratic presidential victory in a given state; a negative number indicates a Republican win.

We adjusted the state-level presidential margins to match the hypothetical national change from 2016; this would represent what political scientists might call a “uniform swing,” in which these states’ presidential margins change the same way the national margin does. Reality won’t be so neat and tidy, but this does give us a presidential baseline as we go through our Senate list.

We are not going to say that the situation of Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) is hopeless, but he has trailed even in Democratic internal polls — when a candidate is behind in even his own party’s polls, he is behind, and likely by more than the party polls show (as nonpartisan surveys have shown). The presidential scenarios show that, even in the event of a Biden national blowout, Jones will need an immense amount of crossover voting to win.

Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Martha McSally (R-AZ) have generally been behind in their races; there is a little more uncertainty with Gardner given that former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) suffered through a very bad string of news coverage in advance of his primary a little over a month ago, but we haven’t seen much indication that Gardner has changed the race in a meaningful way. McSally has been behind, and generally not just by a few points, in Arizona, a more frequently polled state. The difference between the two races is the presidential: It’s not hard to imagine Trump winning Arizona, a purple-trending red state, but it is hard to imagine Trump winning Colorado, a blue-trending purple state. So Gardner will need to attract more crossover support than McSally — he likely will win some, but we’d be surprised if he gets enough. Meanwhile, polls show McSally running behind Trump when she may need to run ahead of him.

The presidential factor is also the reason why we see Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) as slightly more vulnerable than Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC): Joe Biden seems very likely to carry Maine, and by a bigger margin than 2016, while North Carolina (like Arizona) remains a presidential Toss-up. Again, Collins (like Gardner) probably will get crossover support, but perhaps not enough. Tillis, just like McSally, polls behind Trump.

Beyond Maine and North Carolina, Iowa is now in the Toss-up column. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), like McSally and Tillis, appears to be doing a little worse than Trump in her state. She has a little more wiggle room than the other two — note that Trump still carries Iowa even in this hypothetical scenario where Biden is winning nationally by 10 — but both parties are acting (and spending) like Iowa is a Toss-up.

We continue to rate Montana and Georgia’s regular Senate election as Leans Republican even though good cases can be made that both should be Toss-ups. We have different reasoning for keeping both where they’ve been in our ratings.

In the case of Montana, presidential partisanship is key: Trump seems very likely to carry the state again, albeit by a reduced margin, and it’s historically difficult to dislodge a sitting senator whose party is winning the state concurrently in the presidential race. Additionally, the trajectory of the race may actually be going the way of incumbent Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT); a couple of months ago, we thought Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT) was leading Daines. Now, based on what we’ve heard and seen, we are not so sure, and Daines may be ahead, slightly.

In Georgia, Sen. David Perdue (R) is locked in a close race with former congressional candidate Jon Ossoff (D), although he generally polls a little bit better than Trump, and he may be able to attract a little bit of crucial crossover support from Trump-skeptical Metro Atlanta suburbanites who aren’t quite ready to abandon the GOP down the ballot. Perdue also has a backstop in his race: a general election runoff if no one gets over 50%. As we explained in a deep dive on Georgia, the runoff scenario could help Republicans in terms of turnout. So Ossoff may need to get over 50% in the November general election to practically be able to win the seat.

The Republicans’ other offensive target on this list, Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), is honestly closer to being rated Likely Democratic than Toss-up. Both Peters and Biden have consistently posted leads in the state, and Republican pessimism about Michigan at the presidential level seems to be growing, which has to bleed down to the Senate level. John James (R), who is taking a second run at the Senate after losing to Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) in 2018, has been outraising Peters, but only by relatively small margins.

Texas is kind of like the regular Senate race in Georgia, except that former congressional candidate MJ Hegar (D) doesn’t have the resources that Ossoff does and Texas may vote overall to the right of Georgia for president (as it did in 2016 and has in every presidential election since 1988).

Speaking of Georgia, we are moving the special Georgia Senate race from Leans Republican to Likely Republican for several reasons. First of all, we already mentioned the possibility of a runoff in the other Georgia seat, and that Democrats face certain hardships in Georgia runoffs. A runoff is virtually guaranteed in the special race because it is an all-party primary and there are many candidates on both sides. Additionally, it is not even clear that the Democrats will advance a candidate to the runoff: appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and her top GOP challenger, Rep. Doug Collins (R, GA-9), often finish atop polls, while the Rev. Raphael Warnock (D), the choice of national Democrats, sometimes lags behind Matt Lieberman (D), the son of former Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT), with former U.S. Attorney Ed Tarver (D) also garnering some support. So Democrats have work to do to just get into the runoff, and if they get there, they have to deal with the same turnout problems that have beguiled them in past runoffs. So the Republicans have a few important backstops in this race.

Finally, there are a few Likely Republican seats that one could put in the final slot. We decided to go with Alaska, where Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) is running for a second term against doctor Al Gross, an independent/Democrat. Others might put Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in this spot, but despite some close polls, it is just really hard for a Democrat to get a high enough share of the vote to win in such a racially polarized state (Jones has a similar problem in another racially divided Deep South state, Alabama). Alaska’s electorate, though also Republican-leaning, is more fluid, and we see it as a more plausible — though still unlikely — Democratic upset target.


Overall, the battle for the Senate is close, although we would probably rather be the Democrats than the Republicans at the moment. The reason is basically that, of the three decisive Toss-ups in our ratings, we would probably pick the Democrats in at least two of them right now: both Maine and North Carolina are closer to Leans Democratic than Leans Republican. If Democrats win those, as well as Arizona and Colorado (while losing Alabama), they would forge a 50-50 tie, with what they hope is a Democratic vice president breaking ties.

Beyond these top races, the Democrats also have better second-tier targets than the Republicans: namely, the regular race in Georgia as well as Montana. We were prepared to add Kansas to that list, too, but Roger Marshall seems to have spared the GOP that additional headache.

Trump comes face to face with one of his greatest fears

A supporter sits alone in the top sections of seating as Vice President Pence speaks before President Trump arrives for a "Make America Great Again!" rally in Tulsa.
A supporter sits alone in the top sections of seating as Vice President Pence speaks before President Trump arrives for a “Make America Great Again!” rally in Tulsa. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/TWP)
July 10, 2020 at 10:45 a.m. EDT
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The founding falsehood that set the tone for the most mendacious presidency in U.S. history — the original Big Lie — was all about crowd size. In January 2017, President Trump and his spokesperson inflated his inaugural audience with a series of grotesque falsehoods. Trump even attacked the media for telling the truth about his paltry inaugural turnout.

So it’s fitting that as Trump’s first term — and perhaps his presidency — winds down, he is confronting the very same fear that produced that original series of foundational lies: The fear that the crowds just aren’t showing up the way they’re supposed to.

Two new reports — one from NBC News, and one from the Associated Press — shed light on an internal debate now underway among Trump advisers about how to manage both this new reality and Trump’s own emotional struggle with it.


The picture that emerges is one in which they are working to balance Trump’s insatiable need to feed off adoring crowds against the reality that people might be disinclined to brave the plague conditions that he did so much to unleash on the country. The imperatives of satiating Trump’s megalomania are bumping up against the consequences of his depravity and incompetence.

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After half-empty Tulsa rally, Trump boasts his Fox News ratings
President Trump on June 23 claimed that people watched his Tulsa campaign rally from home on June 20, creating the “highest ratings in the history of Fox News.” (The Washington Post)

Trump is set to hold a rally in New Hampshire — originally scheduled for this weekend, it has now been postponed — and as NBC reports, his advisers are desperate to avoid a repeat of the lackluster turnout at his Oklahoma gathering. As one puts it: “We can’t have a repeat of Tulsa.”

What’s changed is that Trump now realizes why the Tulsa fiasco happened: A White House official tells NBC that Trump “sees now” that supporters may not turn out at rallies due to coronavirus fears.

It’s galling that Trump only sees this now, since experts loudly warned against rallies, and one of his paramount goals was to create the illusion of normalcy, so everyone would get back to work and the economy would roar back to greatness on Trump’s reelection schedule.

So the New Hampshire rally will be held outdoors, and masks will be strongly encouraged, though not mandated. Meanwhile, Trump continues urging a recklessly rapid reopening while refusing to set a mask-wearing example himself.

Yet Trump’s advisers also know that future rallies create the risk of more lackluster appearances. But they’re going to brave that risk, and the Associated Press reports on why:

Despite the risks, the Trump campaign believes it needs to return to the road, both to animate the president, who draws energy from his crowds, and to inject life into a campaign that is facing a strong challenge from Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

The problem is that at a time when coronavirus cases are spiking to record levels in many states and nationally, Trump nonetheless wants and needs big crowds.

Trump himself unwittingly laid bare the dynamic in an interview with Sean Hannity on Thursday night.

“We’re doing very well in the polls,” Trump declared, when in fact his approval numbers are 15 points underwater and he’s trailing Biden nationally by 10 points. Both metrics have gotten worse over the last few weeks, but Trump insisted: “We’re rapidly rising.”

“There’s great spirit,” Trump continued. “Spirit like nobody’s ever seen before, actually. And there’s no spirit for Joe.”

As the constant lying about polls demonstrates, for Trump the impression that he’s losing — that his energy and candidacy are flagging, that the crowds aren’t showing up — is itself deadly. What must be relentlessly manufactured is the illusion that he remains enormously popular and that Trump’s America is energized and primed and ready to win again.

Trump has obsessed over his crowd sizes throughout his presidency. Indeed, the ability to create imagery like this is why he held rallies in off-years like 2019 in the first place:

This obsession goes back many years. In his biography of Trump, journalist Timothy O’Brien recounts an exchange between Trump and producer Lorne Michaels, in which Trump acknowledges his NBC project might not attract a big audience forever:

“You know, Lorne, it won’t always be this way,” Donald mused. “Someday NBC will call me and say, ‘Donald, the ratings are no good and we are going to have to cancel.’”
“No, Donald, there is only one difference,” Michaels replied. “They won’t even call.”

That exchange remained with Trump for years, O’Brien reports.

“Trump’s biggest existential fear is that the spotlight will be turned off, the seats will be empty, and his phone will stop ringing,” O’Brien told me. “If the ratings drop, he drops.”

“There isn’t any part of his life that hasn’t been touched by this,” O’Brien continued. “His obsession with newspaper and TV coverage in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s; how many people show up at his rallies; how he’s performing in the polls. It’s always there.”

Trump has never had majority support

An enduring fact about the Trump presidency is that he has never once had a majority of this country behind him. He lost the popular vote in 2016 and his approval has never cracked 50 percent.

Trump sometimes deals with this by declaring himself enormously popular — among carefully tailored groups. He says he won a majority of women; he won only a majority of white women. He constantly claims unspecified polls show he has 96 percent approval — among Republicans.

At other times he simply invents a “SILENT MAJORITY” that remains behind him. At still others, he uses absurdly tortured imagery to portray that silent majority:

Now Trump is facing the prospect of losing even his ability to create and experience the illusion that an enormous portion of the country remains enthusiastically behind him. And it’s all because he can’t conjure up the power to seduce people into believing the lethal virus he has done so little to curb doesn’t really exist.

It must be a special kind of hell for him.

Watch Opinions videos:

Opinion | Trump vs. the coronavirus

Even as the number of U.S. coronavirus cases passes 3 million, President Trump has repeatedly played down covid-19’s toll on the country. (Video: Joy Sharon Yi, Danielle Kunitz/Photo: Jonathan Newton / Washington Post/The Washington Post)

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US anti-abortion groups received millions in federal Covid-19 aid

Anti-abortion advocates hold signs as they stand in front of the US supreme court while participating in the 47th annual March For Life in Washington.
Anti-abortion advocates hold signs as they stand in front of the US supreme court while participating in the 47th annual March For Life in Washington. Photograph: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

Christian anti-abortion lobbying organizations received millions in taxpayer-backed forgivable loans from the US government’s coronavirus aid program, even as lawmakers demanded the nation’s largest abortion provider return federal loans.

Pro-reproductive rights groups have also received funding from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Planned Parenthood, America’s largest network of abortion and sexual health clinics, received $80m in PPP loans.

However, the government agency that oversees the program later tried to claw back loans from Planned Parenthood after Republican criticism, whereas Christian conservative groups were not subject to such efforts.

“What we’re seeing with this is a lightyear leap into direct government financing of major Christian right political entities on a scale we’ve never seen before,” said Frederick Clarkson, a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, an expert on the American religious right.

The discrepancy in how Planned Parenthood and Christian anti-abortion groups were treated after they received coronavirus stimulus money, “is absolutely a double standard”, Clarkson said. “That’s an egregious violation of ethical norms.”

A spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the vice-president of government relations, Jacqueline Ayers, called the clawback, “a clear political attack on Planned Parenthood health centers and access to reproductive healthcare”.

Among the Christian right organizations that received Cares Act funding were the American Family Association (AFA), an influential conservative Christian group which opposes abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.

The AFA has been described as a hate group by tracking experts at the Southern Poverty Law Center. In the past, AFA has described homosexuality as, “a poor and dangerous choice” and blamed the Holocaust on gay people.

The American Center for Law & Justice, an anti-abortion group led by Trump’s personal attorney Jay Sekulow, also received funding.

Notably, the groups received PPP loans in early April, about a week before the loan program ran out of money, and at a time when many large companies were under intense scrutiny to return loans.

The US treasury department released the names of companies that received more than $150,000 in funding on Monday. The disclosure represents less than 15% of all the loans made under the PPP, according to a Washington Post database. Nearly 11,000 religious organizations received at least $3bn in funding from the Paycheck Protection Program.

The AFA, which is based in Tupelo, Mississippi, received between $1-2m, and said it protected 124 jobs with the money. Its non-profit mission statement is, “to promote the biblical ethic of decency in society”. A recent AFA blogpost described abortion as, “an evil running rampant in the United States for a long time”.

The AFA also invests a huge amount of money in lobbying every year. Between 2014-2017 the group spent more than $874,000 trying to change public opinion, according to its non-profit disclosures.

One of the most important efforts housed by the AFA, according to Clarkson, is the American Renewal Project, an electoral project of the Republican campaign strategist David Lane. Lane believes the United States needs to “re-establish a Christian culture”, and called for a religious war in a 2013 essay headlined “Wage war to restore a Christian nation”.

American Center for Law & Justice also works to end abortion, and also received between $1-2m in PPP loans. In the past, the ACLJ has hired telemarketers to raise money off the back of the Trump administration’s investigations of Planned Parenthood, saying in a script that abortion providers had been put “on their heels”, and before citing Sekulow in their pitch.

“Can I let Jay know you’re standing with him with a gift?” telemarketers asked potential donors. More recently, the ACLJ promised to sue California for restricting singing inside churches, because it is believed to spread Covid-19.

Pay to the ACLJ’s staff of attorneys could amount for a large proportion of their PPP loan. The group’s senior litigator alone earns more than $514,000 a year. He is one of a dozen key employees, most of whom earn six-figure salaries.

Neither the AFA nor the ACLJ responded to the Guardian’s request for comment.

A woman’s right to choose …

… is under serious threat for the first time in generations. On the heels of an unprecedented wave of anti-abortion laws passed last year, the Supreme Court will consider a case this year that could dramatically curtail reproductive freedom. Meanwhile, the current administration continues to fill federal courts with judges likely to undermine Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 decision securing the right to abortion.

The Guardian views reproductive freedom as fundamental to women’s health and human rights, and is committed to reporting rigorously on behalf of the women in America who need access to reliable, high quality healthcare.

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