Trump May Have Been Grilled Last Night, But He Definitely Won the Image Game

After President Trump’s off the rails debate performance late last month and his diagnosis with the coronavirus — both of which were followed by drops in his polling numbers just a few weeks before the election in November — the stakes could not have been higher for last night’s town hall. He needed to give the best performance of his career in order to save his floundering campaign. To complicate matters, Trump scheduled the Town Hall with NBC for the exact same time slot that Biden had secured for his own Town Hall on ABC. The dueling Town Halls meant viewers had to choose one over the other or divide their attention between both. Such an aggressive move by the campaign was classic Trump, but whether he benefited from the overlap more than he would have by scheduling his Town Hall at a different time rather than divide the audience, we will never know.

In many ways, last night’s town hall was a Hail Mary for Trump, and he came prepared. He gave one of his best performances of the year last night. Regardless of the content of his responses, which was his usual mix of hyperbole and falsehoods, his presentation and appearance were spectacular. He was dressed in a clean-cut blue suit, his trademark tan was perfectly leveled and blended, and his hair looked almost natural. But more than his appearance, it was his alertness and vivaciousness that stood out. Far from the angry old man aesthetic he projected at the previous debate, Trump looked — dare I say it — presidential. Did he ramble and pivot off-topic constantly such that many of his answers amounted to the sort of garbled nonsense voters have come to expect from him? Yes. But the way he presented his garbled nonsense — with those steely eyes and rapid-fire back-and-forths with the moderator — gave one the sense that he was at least completely aware of his surroundings and enthusiastically alive, something his droopy opponent often struggled to do last night at his own Town Hall.

The moderator, Savannah Guthrie, did an outstanding job and deserves praise for her engagement with the president. Unlike Fox’s Chris Wallace at the disastrous presidential debate, Guthrie never once lost control of the proceedings. Granted, Town Halls are very different from debates, but Guthrie excelled even among other moderators of Town Halls. She grilled the president in ways that were not only satisfying to watch but necessary for the good of the country. She asked the president point-blank whether he would denounce white supremacy, and he did, though not without attempting to draw some equivalencies on the left. She asked him directly whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power, and he equivocated. She asked him if he denounced Qanon, and he did not. She asked him if he had taken a Coronavirus test on the day of the previous debate, and he couldn’t seem to give a straight answer. This sort of pointed confrontational interview was exactly what the American people have been hoping for all year, and Guthrie delivered the goods. Her performance was so commanding and cathartic for the nation that she instantly stifled the growing uproar that had consumed Twitter about NBC’s choice to air the president’s town hall at the same time as ABC aired Biden’s town hall. Some viewers and media figures had pledged to boycott NBC over these concerns. Guthrie negated all skepticism and criticism with her blunt and forceful moderation.

One stark contrast between the two town halls was the backgrounds in front of which the two candidates sat. Trump was positioned on a stool in an open, breezy forum. His perch, with one foot on the ground, was a classic perch for politicians in such settings, and it had the intended effect of making it look like the President was at once casually at ease and simultaneously ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice — so ready, in fact, that he was already half off the stool. Behind the president were two, sometimes three, attractive women, one of whom nodded along with everything the President said. Later, it was revealed that she was a former congressional candidate and long time Trump supporter, not an undecided voter as NBC had originally indicated. She also happened to be a professional beauty pageant winner and a black woman. The effect of seeing an attractive, black, so-called undecided voter nod along in the background with everything Trump said was comical, strange, but also effective in providing an immediate spin to Trump’s answers. Less savvy viewers may have looked at her and thought, “well if she is on Trump’s side, so am I,” which was probably why she positioned herself where she did. 

Biden, on the other hand, sat in a comfortable lounge chair backed by a nondescript blue screen. From some angles, the lighter blue color of the screen bleached out the top of his head so that, viewed through the lens of the camera, Biden’s hair and the profile of his face blended into the background. He looked strange and almost ghostly, like a photoshopped image with too much blur on the edges of a cropped object. The pale blue background also gave the viewer nothing interesting to look at so that when the viewers’ minds wandered, they were more likely to stop focussing on the program altogether, rather than stay engaged. As a result, there were times when Biden seemed to fade away even as he delivered long answers in his soft, almost pleading voice. Anyone who was struggling to stay awake would have been put to sleep almost immediately.

That being said, the substance of Biden’s answers were good, and if Americans want someone who can actually represent their values on the world stage, Biden is clearly the correct choice. But Trump won the image game. He came off as proud if not obstinate, and he looked like a leader even as he struggled to account for his failures to lead over the past four years. If these performances affect the polls at all, they will certainly help Trump. It may not have been the shot in the arm his campaign needs to win the election, but it kept his candidacy alive. If there was a winner of this non-contest, it was Trump.

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