Joe Biden's strongest registers of aggression are dismay and irritation. Credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty

September 30, 2020   4 mins

“You picked the wrong guy on the wrong night at the wrong time,” Joe Biden told President Trump, early in last night’s presidential debate. You can imagine how they hoped it would sound back in the comfort of the Biden basement, while they were honing his armory of zingers ahead of time. Macho. A little bit Dirty Harry. A steely warning from a real street-fighter that a certain blustering Queens braggart was out of his depth.

But Joe Biden is no street-fighter. He’s a well-mannered, decent, slightly absent-minded old thing whose strongest registers of aggression are dismay and irritation. When he wheeled out that line he sounded like a pensioner complaining crossly that someone had spilled his Sanatogen. And that, regrettably, was the story of last night’s debate: a man who brought a sponge to a knife-fight.

Trump didn’t sound presidential — of course he didn’t — but he sounded fully himself. Everything that his opponents hate and his supporters adore was abundantly in evidence. Trump gonna Trump, right? He’s a known quantity in all this.

Oratorically, one of his strengths is the fact that you don’t know what’s going to come out of his mouth, and nor does he, and when it does it’s frequently either fascinatingly incoherent, dismally mendacious or jaw-droppingly obnoxious. That commands the attention. There are animal spirits to Trump.

And, God knows, there were some things there to stretch the eyes. There was the chilling moment in which, invited to demand the Proud Boys desist from violence, he told them to “stand back and stand by” — as if temporarily benching a football B-team rather than condemning a gang of neo-fascists. There was his categorical claim to have spent “millions” in federal income tax when the record shows he paid $750. This sort of thing could and should have been pressed — with passion and articulacy — by a strong opponent.

But Joe Biden’s ethos appeal — that sense of himself that he projected to the audience — flickered wanly. He was at a loss to make his prepared remarks land. He frequently forgot himself and misspoke. He ambled around issues and weakened his better soundbites by mumbling or affixing long kite-tails of qualifying clauses to the ends of them.

And he was fatally easily derailed by Trump’s constant interruptions. Every time, he’d take the bait and leave what he was saying. “Tell that to Nancy Pelosi,” Trump sneered at one point, and Biden at once hopped off his train of thought to argue crossly about Nancy Pelosi. You know what they say about wrestling with pigs.

From time to time he’d remember one of those lines they cooked up in the basement and he’d have a bash at delivering it – or he’d make a stagy attempt to laugh condescendingly at his opponent. Most stagy of all was his use of apostrophe. Every now and again he’d make a point of looking right down the camera and speaking direct to the voters at home. “You! The American people! You!” he’d say. He’d even reach out with his hands towards them. “How many of you at home have an empty chair because you’ve lost somebody to Covid?” You could see, in those moments, the tatters of that plan of action which, famously, never survives the first contact with the enemy.

And even when he experienced a spontaneous flare of emotion, his good manners undermined the strength of the outburst. “It’s hard to get any word in with this clown,” he said. Signs of life! But then he remembered himself: “Excuse me, this person.” And when he was talking with real passion about his late son Beau— “He was not a loser. He was a patriot. And I resent…” his crescendo was cut off as Trump derailed the conversation with a sneering reference to Biden’s other son Hunter’s former cocaine habit.

Trump, I’m afraid, got to him. A matador was needed, here — or at least a picador— but our guy got flattened by the bull. Trump demanded: “Name one law enforcement group that supported you. We’ve got time.” Biden, blindsided: “We don’t have time.” Later, in a segment on the environment, Trump started inveighing against the “10 trillion dollar” cost of the Green New Deal. Biden protested that the Green New Deal was “not my plan”. Then he found himself saying: “The Green New Deal will pay for itself going forward.” Hang on, Chris Wallace said: I thought you didn’t support the Green New Deal. “I don’t support the Green New Deal,” Biden corrected himself. “I support the Biden plan.”

And sometimes he got to himself. He started a run of anaphora at one point, beginning successive sentences with “This is a guy that… this is a guy that…” and then simply lost his thread, mumbling into his chest, “Anyway, it’s all true.” This is not a problem that frequently afflicted Barack Obama.

Rhetorically speaking, the whole event was what Joe Biden would have been too well mannered to call a shitshow. Ostensibly a highly artificial, highly structured debate — six 15-minute segments, with two minutes each at the top of each one — it collapsed into chaos moments after it started. The moderator, Chris Wallace, asked wordy and ill-focused questions, and proved quite incapable of controlling the conversation. The only way to get Donald Trump to let an opponent speak unheckled for 120 seconds — and we can see with hindsight — would have been to encase him in a soundproof box and cut the mic when it wasn’t his turn to speak. Or, we might fantasise, fix him with one of those electric collars they use on dogs.

Like I say: chaos. And chaos is Mr Trump’s natural habitat. A debate like this — even at the best of times is not one in which you expect reasoned arguments and carefully marshalled statistics to carry the day. When they descended into the weeds of the difference between “solicited ballots” and “unsolicited ballots”, or the stats on voter registration, it was deadly. The lines that cut through most effectively in these circumstances are the emptiest slogans. Trump had: “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen!” Biden had: “Go to” It didn’t work when Hillary read out weblinks in a presidential debate — remember her directing the audience to her real-time factchecking site? — and it didn’t work here.

It’s about the vibe. Who seems authentic? Who seems in command? And here — bullying the squawking compere, rattling his opponent, ignoring anything he heard he didn’t like and getting away with it — the person who seemed in command here was, woe to the world, the incumbent President.

Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator. His forthcoming book, The Haunted Wood: A History of Childhood Reading, is out in September.