In reality, the candidate we saw Tuesday night—the worn, restless, curmudgeonly incumbent of 2020—bore little resemblance to the loose, rollicking, self-assured candidate of 2016. It might be hard to remember through the fog of these past four years, but the animating sentiment for Trump during his first run for the presidency wasn’t hatred or division. It was fun. He was having the time of his life. Nothing Trump had ever experienced had showered him with so much attention, so much adulation, so much controversy and coverage. He loved every moment of it. Even in the valleys of that campaign, such as Access Hollywood weekend, Trump found humor in razzing Rudy Giuliani or making jokes about Karen Pence. Even when he was lashing out against Clinton or the media or the Never Trump Republicans, he was enjoying himself.
The president wasn’t enjoying himself last night. There was no mischievous glint in his eye, no mirthful vibrancy in his demeanor. He looked exhausted. He sounded ornery. Gone was the swagger, the detached smirk, that reflected bottomless wells of confidence and conviction. Though described by Tucker Carlson in Fox News’ pregame show as an “instinctive predator,” Trump behaved like cornered prey—fearful, desperate, trapped by his own shortcomings and the circumstances that exposed them. He was a shell of his former dominant self.
It was shocking to witness. Whereas Trump four years ago was unemotional in his approach to Clinton, placid almost to the point of appearing sedated, he was twitchy and agitated from the opening moments of Tuesday’s debate. The president shouted and seethed and flailed his arms in fury, his face pulsating ever brighter hues of citrus. For all the talk of Trump throwing Biden off his game, it was Biden—and moderator Chris Wallace—who stirred such conniptions in the president that he was unable to meet the bare minimums. Despite being prepared for the obvious questions, Trump was so inflamed that he could not offer the vague outlines of a health care plan or denounce white supremacists with more than a single word—“Sure”—when gifted multiple opportunities to do so.