Trump and Biden's debate over kids in cages underscores the stark choice facing Americans

This election is both about who we want the president to be, and what sort of place we really want America to be.

This is what the 2020 presidential election comes down to: Do you want a bully in the White House or not?

The seminal moment that solidified this as the essence of the race came on Thursday night during the second debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, and was revealed as part of an expected series of questions on immigration.

In response to revelations that the Trump administration had yet to reunify 545 migrant children with their parents almost two years after a “zero tolerance” police led to the deliberate separation of thousands of children who had crossed the border with their parents or guardians — a practice some labeled as torture — Biden emotionally labeled the practice of family separations "criminal."

"Their kids were ripped from their arms and separated," Biden said, in response to factually incorrect assertions by Trump that they were unaccompanied minors smuggled into the United States by coyotes rather than family members. "And now they cannot find over 500 sets of those parents and those kids are alone — nowhere to go, nowhere to go."

The amount of empathy Trump displayed in response was zero. "They are so well taken care of," he said. "They’re in facilities that were so clean, that have gotten such good ..." (at which point he was interrupted).

Unlike anything Trump has ever done, Biden admitted that what happened under President Barack Obama was a mistake.

He also, in the course of the exchange, admitted that the children were being held in cages, but blamed the Obama administration: "Who built the cages, Joe?," he demanded. "Who built the cages, Joe?"

Trump was factually correct in reminding Biden that cages were part of an embarrassing Obama administration get-tough policy in 2014 that also dehumanized migrants as part of a mass detention policy, but it is only under Trump that the United States systematically separated children from their families with no plans for reunification. Trump was also correct to suggest that the Obama administration laid the foundation for Trump to effectively implement tougher immigration policies.

Yet unlike anything Trump has ever done, Biden admitted to a national television audience that what happened under President Barack Obama was a mistake — and it was actually the first thing he said when asked about the Obama's administration's culpability for the current situation. “Because we made a mistake," he told the moderator Kristen Welker. "It took too long to get it right."

And, once he was done admitting that there was a problem with what the Obama administration had done, Biden then rattled off all that he would do to right a wrong. For the countless immigrant rights advocates who had been demanding change from first Obama and then Trump on these issues, it is clear that, while Trump is a lost cause, Biden is still capable of growth.

Trump, though, simply stuck to his guns, repeatedly asserting that there is nothing wrong with either his immigration policies or how they were implemented. He refused to accept that he has any reason for any remorse — though, minutes later, he did proudly proclaim that he was the least racist person in the room.

Americans are truly going to be deciding in the next 11 days what kind of president and what kind of country we want to have in 2021.

But the f----your-feelings mantra that all but defined his campaign in 2016 and much of his presidency since rings hollow in 2020, amid a global pandemic that can only be mitigated by showing care for others (by wearing a mask, which the president also often refuses to do).

Tossing out neo-nativist immigration talking points grounded in no factual reality (cartels! coyotes! gangs!) in response to questions about the 545 children his administration deliberately traumatized and effectively orphaned as punishment for their parents' attempts to cross the border to escape violence and poverty was one more example of a president who built a political career off of demonizing migrants simply doubling down. Any acknowledgment of his culpability for one of the country’s most horrific moral stains was not and will not happen — just like how he shirks responsibility for his administration's failures during the Covid-19 crisis.

It's hard not to see him for who he is now: the guy who talks tough but who can't accept any responsibility for the consequences for either his tough talk or his actions. And those suburban white women who gravitated to that supposed toughness as a 2016 big middle finger to the so-called liberal establishment are now reconsidering the consequences of that choice. They might not have been screaming about Obama's pro-deportation policy six years ago, but they can see quite clearly now what horror that can lead to when passed off to someone like Trump. His brand of "immigration reform" is a country that cages babies like dogs in freezing cold warehouses and celebrates that the cages are clean; we all know now it's time for something new.

But the exchange about immigration between Biden and Trump also revealed a deeper truth about what Americans are truly going to be deciding in the next 11 days: What kind of president and what kind of country do we want to have in 2021?

Do we want the cruel bully, the fake tough-guy who isn't so tough when asked to take responsibility for his actions? Or do we want the man who is horrified by kids in cages, and willing to admit that what role he played in that ultimate, terrible outcome was wrong and he's learned he has to do better?

From the looks of the polls, the answer is that more and more people want the latter, not the former. (The tough guy persona is still working well with white suburban men, but not with white suburban women.)

Trump continues to be a bully from his bully pulpit because it gave him a win in 2016 — but 2020 could be different. His brand of gratuitous nastiness has lost its appeal; unfortunately, it took thousands of children traumatized by his cruelty, nearly 225,000 American dead so far, millions sickened, millions more unemployed and unfathomable economic and personal losses for everyone for that to happen.