When all is said and done, the award for "most compelling person on stage" during Thursday night's second and final presidential debate could very well go to first lady Melania Trump, who forcefully — and very conspicuously — rejected her husband’s half-hearted advances toward her as the pair posed for post-debate photographs. That alone should tell you all you need to know about the evening's proceedings, and just how much it seemed like everyone involved wished they could be doing something — anything — else.
It would be a dramatic understatement to call the debate a low-energy affair, despite it being the last scheduled chance for President Trump and Joe Biden to look one another in the eye and spout carefully rehearsed (or not) soundbites right to one another's face. And yet, with just weeks to go before America finishes voting for the next president of the United States, neither candidate seemed to have much to say on Thursday night, nor did they seem all that interested in saying it. There were no "breakout moments," no jaw-dropping admissions or quintessentially Trumpian boasts, or anything particularly new at all.
In part, that can be chalked up to the fact that it feels like this election has lasted decades, not months, and after all that's happened — remember when the president, his wife, and son all got coronavirus and didn't tell anyone for days? Remember when Biden literally bled from his eyeball? — it would be hard for anything to surprise us at this point. Still, given the potential gains from appearing before a massive national audience for the last time together, you would think Trump and Biden would act like they cared about being there.
For Biden, the understated performance makes a degree of sense. Ahead in the polls, and running a campaign predicated on not rocking the boat, all he had to do was not screw up. If he landed a punch on Trump, all the better, but his job was to simply maintain what he had. He did have some good moments; his jabs at Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic weren't exactly knockout blows, but they felt solid enough to get Biden's point that Trump has absolutely botched his pandemic response across nicely. It's an obvious point — 223,000 people have died in the U.S., with more to come — but an effective one nonetheless.
Trump, on the other hand, was uncharacteristically demure (at least by his standards) for the first half of the debate. And even when he abandoned all pretense of his version of civility toward the end, he still seemed only half-heartedly enthusiastic in his jibes and retorts.
In part, it seemed like Trump was struggling to stifle his screaming id in the hopes that he could come off as even moderately "presidential" — or at least not like a raving lunatic, which is the sort of thing the "Suburban Housewives of America" he so transparently feels he needs to win over probably don't love to see from him. Consider his performance in the first presidential debate, where his overly malicious attacks on Hunter Biden's history of drug addiction only served to give the former vice president one of the best moments of the night, and contributed to Biden's overall debate win. Trump, meanwhile, saw potential voters repulsed by his performance in crucial battleground states, likely contributing to his attempt to come off at least slightly less manic this time around.
That is, until about halfway through the night, when he either couldn't, or wouldn't continue the charade anymore. He instead reverted back to his pugnacious true self, trotting out his campaign rally boasts like insisting to moderator Kristen Welker, who is Black, that he was the "least racist person in this room."
Even so, it seemed like too little too late to actually make a difference for Trump. His attempt came off as tired and uninspired, his lines of attack were predictable and lacked any real enthusiasm. He was, to use his own words, extremely "low energy."
All told, it's hard to see how anyone's opinion on either candidate could have been affected by the final debate. (Although it can be hard to see how anyone could possibly still be an undecided voter at this point, too.) If anything, the night was a relative wash for both Biden, who simply needed to not fail, and Trump, who was uncomfortably stuck between wanting to land bodyblows, and wanting to come across as something more than just a brawler.
Which brings us back to Melania. For better or worse, when she pulled her hand away from her husband's grip during the post-debate denouement, it was one of the only moments that night where viewers could see someone who, like them, was done pretending.