I live in a ghost town—at least Donald Trump seems to think so. It’s “a ghost town!” he exclaimed more than once at Thursday night’s second and last debate with Joe Biden. “Take a look at New York and what’s happened to my wonderful city. For so many years, I loved it. It was vibrant. It’s dying. Everyone’s leaving New York.”
He’s wrong, of course, and although he keeps saying it, like so much of what Trump claimed during those ninety minutes on Thursday, repetition doesn’t make it any truer. Yes, New York has taken a lot of hard knocks these past few months, lost far too many of our people to this hideous disease and seen too many businesses falter or close.
And fair enough, people have moved from Manhattan, for a while at least, but a ghost town we’re not. Traffic is roaring down the street beneath my windows as I write and the restaurants that have made it this far and reopened have put up tents and enclosures to serve customers on the sidewalks and out onto the roadways—so many that my downtown neighborhood now feels like one, big, perpetual street fair. And that includes the Dixieland band that shows up every night to serenade diners with “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Whether this will remain the case when the first snow flies is, you should excuse the word, debatable, but for now, there are moments I feel like I’m living in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
But I digress. This was a debate about diminished expectations, as has been the case with so much about this administration, at least when it amounts to true accomplishments. In the initial encounter, Trump bellowed and stomped like the gorilla in that old TV commercial that jumped up and down trying to destroy a suitcase. His aides told Trump to tone it down and try to behave. Comparatively speaking, he did, and here’s a special thank you to whoever was in charge of that microphone mute button. But as Daniel Dale, CNN’s fact checker supreme, tweeted mid-action, “From a lying perspective, Trump is even worse tonight than in the first debate.”
And so he rolled out all the golden oldies and threw in a new one or two. Once again, he said no president with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln has done as much for black people, which always must be a sudden jolt to the late Lyndon B. Johnson, champion of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. (Lincoln probably took a spin in his sarcophagus, too.)
He also had the effrontery to declare, “I’m the least racist person in this room”—twice. That he instantly wasn’t struck down by a thunderbolt finally may prove there’s no God. Biden rightfully replied that Trump has been “one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history. He pours fuel on every single racist fire, every single one… Come on, this guy has a dog whistle about as big as a foghorn.”
Trump again tried to bulldoze his ways through the realities of climate change, Obamacare, his bromance with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and that country’s nuclear stockpile, the state of the economy, Russian interference, the Mexico wall, and of course, the magnitude of the COVID crisis that he made so much worse, and the status of a successful vaccine that Americans may or may not accept even when it’s finally available.
Nor did his attempts to smear Biden with charges that the former vice president and his son accepted vast amounts of cash from foreign powers land with much success, simply because his own family has so much to hide, the convoluted, wacky conspiracy theories are arcane to most voters and the plethora of accusations already feel old hat even hours after they’re made. Trump tends to forget that many of these lies are what got him impeached.
Forgetful he may be, but Donald Trump always has lived in the past—even his original campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again” (shoplifted from the Ronald Reagan campaign of 1980) was meant to evoke nostalgia for a time past, a time filled with white people enjoying white privilege on an idyllic plane that never really existed.
Often, his cultural references, such as they be, are to old TV shows, deceased celebrities like Bob Hope, and such movies as Gone with the Wind. (“It has stood the test of time,” he once told the website Movieline.) And politically, he favors the good old days of McCarthyism, immigrant exclusion and the Alien and Sedition Acts.
So witness his comments Thursday when he said his administration was “trying very hard” to reunite children separated from their parents at the border, a blatant mischaracterization as per the ACLU and others, and that, “They are so well taken care of. They’re in facilities that were so clean,” a claim proven false time and again. It denies the fact that hundreds of these kids remain without parents because authorities have no idea where their mothers and fathers are, and only under court order gave what little information they had about them to those lawyers and human rights groups who really are searching.
As for Trump’s repeated assertion that he wasn’t the first to use “cages,” Nick Miroff of The Washington Post observes, “Our immigration system put children in a warehouse with chain-link enclosures before Trump. But under his administration, the government used that infrastructure to systematically take children away from their parents. The inhumanity of the design warped into something even crueler.”
Almost as callous and prejudiced was Trump’s lie that only one percent of those who were released by the previous administration on their own recognizance showed up for their court hearings (it’s more like 75 percent). He actually said, “Only the really… I hate to say this, but those with the lowest IQ, they might come back, but there are very, very few.” Spoken like a very stable, disdainful and callous genius.
There was so much that wasn’t discussed—Amy Coney Barrett and women’s reproductive rights, judicial reform, police brutality, the Middle East, to name just a few. Biden wasn’t flawless—his shifting position on fracking, for example—and his Hitler reference in an attempt at sarcasm was an odd unfortunate stumble. But Donald Trump has no vision for the future or even his second term—every time he’s asked he dodges the question except to say it will be more of the same or by pledging to get the economy back to the magnificence he takes credit for but in large part inherited from the Obama-Biden days.
When it comes to campaign strategy, foolishly, he has insisted on superstitiously and painstakingly retracing almost every step of his malicious 2016 campaign, like a kid trying not to step on a crack in the sidewalk.
But that was then, this is now. The voting majority of Americans are onto him.
This is a man who has lived his life and career like the shepherd boy in Aesop’s Fable, the one who falsely cried wolf repeatedly, lying and cheating again and again until reality caught up with him. All his sheep got eaten. And so did he.
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Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.