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Biden Floundered, Trump Had Flair

I hate to be the bringer of bad news, but Donald Trump didn’t just give a better performance than Joe Biden during the first 2024 presidential debate. In terms of authority and confidence, quickness and poise, articulation and verve, Trump left Biden in the dust. Relative to his previous debate performances, Trump even came off as (God help us) presidential. I’m sorry, but that’s what happened.

Biden told a lot more truth, but he didn’t tell it well. From the opening moments of his walk toward the podium, he looked almost ghostly; Trump, by contrast, sauntered on stage with an angry bravado. And Biden, from his first answer on inflation, launched into a mode of speaking that left one hoping he’d get to the end of each answer. That is not presidential.

I’d argue that his performance was little short of a disaster. Biden seemed at once glassy and wooden, rushing his words, skimming over the top of them even when the content was solid. His voice was scratchy, at times almost a whisper, and his answers were scattered. His head was talking but it seemed separate from his body. Early on, he had one extended faltering moment that was agonizing, ending with the line “We finally beat Medicare.” Huh? It was Biden shorthand for “We finally beat the issue,” but it played as a gaffe, and it allowed Trump to answer him by presenting himself as the great defender of Social Security.

Call that the first of Trump’s whoppers. He lied through his teeth, of course, most spectacularly about his own presidential record (on immigration, the economy, COVID — you name it, he told tall tales about it). Trump made statements that ranged from the extreme (“China’s going to own us if you keep allowing them to do what they’re doing to our country”) to the ultra-extreme (“We are very, very close to World War III”). Yet most of his performance was a master class in how an extreme politician can normalize himself for the purpose of getting elected. Given the ruthless parameters of his personality, Trump plugged into classic conservative mythology and spoke with an I’ve-got-your-back ease that allowed him to present himself in a way that seemed, at times, nearly Reaganesque. He was relaxed, confident, articulate and fast on his feet.

Gone, for the most part, was the gleefully disreputable stand-up-comedian-as-bad-boy-assassin personality — his willingness to say the wrong thing, the incorrect thing, which looks to a lot of people like rebellion against an overly controlled age — that was at the center of Trump’s performance during his debates with Hillary Clinton. Trump allowed himself to breathe fire on immigration, but for the most part he presented himself as a classic post-Reagan figure, preaching conservative boilerplate. He defended his economic policies with a standard piece of trickle-down malarkey.

Trump was able to weaponize the age of disinformation — to endow everything he said with the magic aura of “If I say it with enough punch and conviction, enough prowess, enough faith in my own authority, I’ll make it true.” To undo that kind of con-man jauntiness, you need an adversary every bit as wily in his power, who can not just accuse Trump of lying but make the lying sound sinister. But it seemed as if all Joe Biden could do was make Democratic talking points sound like data.

Biden seemed so entrapped in his testy policy-point mind that he had a way of giving almost every answer a bit of the aura that one remembers from Mike Dukakis’ famous 1988 debate non-response about what he would do if Kitty Dukakis were raped and killed. Dukakis gave a woefully dispassionate answer (one that’s commonly thought to have sealed his election defeat), and Biden, too, kept meeting questions about crucial issues as if he were reciting the answers, as if bureaucratic detail could handle human problems. It’s not that the fine points of policy don’t matter. It’s that a presidential candidate in the mega-media age must know how to frame the issues in a potent human way. He has to sweep up his listeners.

And that’s what Trump has learned to do. No matter how often this idea is conveyed, too many Americans fail to grasp its upshot: that Donald Trump is Entertainment, and that he has used politics to perfect his role as a showbiz paragon. He’s a genuine (so-so) wheeler-dealer businessman, but he played an imperious executive deity on TV, and he’s still playing one. Yes, he’s a liar, a huckster, a bully, a racist, a convicted felon and now a potential authoritarian demagogue. But to great swaths of the American people, the reason all this somehow doesn’t matter is that he’s the figure in the presidential race who grips them, who has all the good lines. And that’s the Trump we saw tonight.

Trump learned most of his bullying, postmodern dark-side-of-Warhol media-manipulation techniques from Roy Cohn, who he sucked up to as a kind of father figure and then abandoned (in no small part because of his homophobic disgust over the fact that Cohn had AIDS). But a major part of what Ramin Setoodeh, the co-editor-in-chief of Variety, captures in his new book “Apprentice in Wonderland” is how “The Apprentice,” in effect, became Trump’s second Roy Cohn. The glittering network series taught him how to project himself as an actor, how to tailor Cohn’s backroom methods of reality manipulation to the hyper-(non)reality of reality TV.

He is still, in effect, the president of the National Entertainment State. And if you find yourself saying, “But this is politics. This matters. How can people look past Trump’s immorality as a human being?,” it’s worth noting that his ability to trump the enfeebled bureaucratic shambling of Joe Biden is a degraded version of something that’s long been there in our presidential contests, certainly since JFK vs. Nixon — the Happy Warrior syndrome. Trump, even under attack by the law, is the Happy Warrior because you can feel how much he enjoys destroying the things around him. That’s not a Happy Warrior who should be president, but it’s the one that America is stuck with.

He can only be defeated by another Happy Warrior. Biden, tonight, was so far from being that person that his performance already appears to have set off a fire alarm within the Democratic Party. Can he be replaced? That will now be the question on the lips of many Democrats. But one reason for that should not be understated: Donald Trump, hewing to a middle-of-the-script, dodging questions like an ace lawyer about whether he’d accept the election results, tonight did the job of making himself seem more viable than reckless. Whoever the Democratic candidate for president is, be it Biden or someone else, he or she will have to undo that.

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