To be fair, he had a tough, even impossible, task. On the one hand, he had to rattle Biden, because the way to catch up to a front-runner is to halt his stride, and Trump was hardly going to do that with politeness and affirmations.
But he couldn’t repeat his disastrous turn in that first debate, when he wasn’t so much fierce as feral. To repair the damage from it, he had to exhibit at least a whisper of decorum and the faintest murmurings of a heart.
Those goals were in tension, though several prominent Republicans noted that Trump had a model for how to behave: Mike Pence, who was alternately combative and serenely confident in his vice-presidential debate with Kamala Harris.
But Trump lacks the humility to take cues from anyone. And nudging the nutty monarch of Mar-a-Loco to emulate the Hoosier snoozer is like asking a honey badger to morph into a three-toed sloth. It goes against the very nature of the beast.
He pursued an odd strategy, built on pure delusion and dependent on voters’ complete amnesia.
He painted Biden, not himself, as an ethical abomination whose career in government was devoted to personal enrichment. He portrayed the Biden family, not his own, as a clan of grifters. He essentially cast Biden as the incumbent, speaking as if Biden had exited the vice presidency all of 60 seconds ago, and clung to the claim that he, the leader of the world’s richest and most powerful country for nearly four years now, was the ultimate outsider.
“It’s all talk, no action, with these politicians,” Trump said at one point.
These politicians? Mr. President, let me introduce you to the profession that you now inhabit. You’re awful at it, and there’s a death toll of more than 220,000 Americans that speaks to that. But it is your occupation, God save the rest of us.