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Is 'The Donald' losing his magic?

Is 'The Donald' losing his magic?
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Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDOJ asks Supreme Court to revive Boston Marathon bomber death sentence, in break with Biden vow Biden looking to build momentum for Putin meeting DOJ tells media execs that reporters were not targets of investigations MORE is like a fading entertainer who knows he’s losing the audience. Confused about his decline, hungry for a return to glory, he doubles-down on an outdated act that fewer and fewer people enjoy. 

All of that was on clear display in last week’s debate: Trump’s favorite comic foil, Joe BidenJoe BidenFormer Rep. Rohrabacher says he took part in Jan. 6 march to Capitol but did not storm building Saudis picked up drugs in Cairo used to kill Khashoggi: report Biden looking to build momentum for Putin meeting MORE, was right there, six feet away, but the old zingers and stock taunts felt flat. Now, his team is worried the magic is gone.

The president will be off both the debate stage and the campaign trail for an unknown period of time, after testing positive for COVID-19. His bout with the virus and his stay at Walter Reed will hopefully be brief, and his recovery complete. This experience, in fact, could cause Trump to reduce the ire seen in Cleveland — or it could simply amplify his anxiety. 

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As I’ve written previously, Trump has all the traits of an insult comic — the tone, the timing and the tried-and-true one-liners (“Lock her up!”) that his fans at rallies wait for in laugh-filled anticipation. But insult comedy is a dangerous game. In order to keep the crowd amused, you have to constantly ratchet up the outrage and abuse until — almost inevitably — you cross a line and nobody is laughing.

The president has been building up to this for some time. In 2015, the Wall Street Journal posted a video compilation of Trump’s primary campaign wisecracks, called “The Art of the Insult.” Viewing it now, the act seems fresh and the gags almost good natured. (Remember “Low Energy Jeb?”)  He was confident and cool at the microphone, a trained showman who knew he was finding an audience.

But lately, behind in the polls, his tone has felt nastier. In one rally, Trump riffed at length about the injuries sustained at a riot by MSNBC’s Ali Velshi. A few days later, he insisted Biden uses performance-enhancing drugs and gets “a big fat shot in the ass” before heading on stage. Compared to the 2015 version, this Trump stand-up routine tastes bitter. A headline in the Washington Post on Sept. 24 read: “Trump’s rally rhetoric is becoming uglier.”

If you know anything about comedians, you’re not surprised. Below the surface, many stand-ups have a dark side — insult comics most of all. They often felt like outsiders in school and at home, struggling to be noticed and appreciated. Their saving grace: they somehow found a way to mold that grievance into comedy.

But it takes a lot of hard work and energy to transform hostility into humor. Meet insult stand-ups and shock jocks at a bar after the show and they’re often too exhausted to maintain their funny façade. What you get then is what’s left: darkness — complaints about people who get all the breaks, jabs at other comics for stealing jokes. And once a career starts to fade, painting on that stage smile each night becomes nearly impossible.

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That may be where Trump is now with a segment of his audience. Right after the debate Tuesday night, CBS News conducted a poll of more than 1,000 people in battleground states. They were asked how the debate made them feel. Sixty-nine percent said it left them “annoyed.” But 31 percent — the second most popular response — actually said they were “entertained.”

While it’s astonishing that anyone would describe the debate in those terms, it is also a stark reminder that, all along, many people have been drawn to Trump mainly for the laughs and insults. But one-third doesn’t win elections. For comedians, one-third doesn’t fill a Las Vegas showroom or a theatre in Chicago.

Thirty-one percent may signify the real measurement of the president’s core base, the die-hard fans who will drive all night to see him stick it to “Crooked Hillary” one more time, just like the good old days. That’s a comedian in his twilight, an unsteady performer suddenly out-of-sync, someone who just doesn’t connect the way he used to. 

None of this bodes well for anyone wishing things might turn around after Tuesday’s debacle, but the coronavirus battle could change the dynamic — the encounter might encourage the president to take a beat before spilling out an insult or launching a jab, especially about certain mask-wearing candidates.

But he may, once recovered, rejoin the campaign furious about lost time and desperate to grab back a fickle spotlight. If that happens, last week’s debate might soon be seen as a quaint relic from a much more innocent time, way back in September.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.