The Pitfalls of Political Trash Talk

If Biden tries to beat Trump at his own game, he will lose.

Nobody in American politics can beat Donald Trump at the game of coarse insults, name-calling, and personal ridicule. And nobody should try, especially Joe Biden, who needs to keep his poise of dignity and decency if he has a chance of rescuing discourse from its quagmire. Little temper tantrums and macho posturing, provoked Thursday by an Iowa voter’s unfriendly question, are not going to please citizens looking for a return to decorum.

Besides, Biden’s not very good at it. An early attempt occurred back in October 2016, when Biden was campaigning for Hillary Clinton. He managed to deflect public attention from his powerful condemnation of Trump’s boast that he could grab any woman’s pussy. Biden called it “a textbook definition of sexual assault” and went on: “He said, ‘Because I’m famous, because I’m a star, because I’m a billionaire, I can do things other people can’t.’ What a disgusting assertion for anyone to make!”

The burning anger in Biden’s face said it all. Then he stepped on his own message by adding: “The press always asks me, ‘Don’t I wish I were debating him?’ No, I wish we were in high school so I could take him behind the gym, that’s what I wish.” The partisan crowd cheered, but the more important point was swallowed by the Biden bravado, which became the focus of the news.

Biden must have thought he’d scored, because he embellished in March 2018 at the University Miami: “If we were in high school I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him . . . I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms my whole life. I’m a pretty damn good athlete. Any guy who talked that way was usually the fattest, ugliest S.O.B. in the room.”

This week, Biden bragged again about his physical prowess in a testy exchange with a burly, 83-year-old retired farmer who said Biden was “too old for the job” and accused him of “selling access to the president” through his son Hunter’s payments by a Ukrainian energy firm. “You’re a damn liar, man. That’s not true,” Biden replied. He offered no considered rebuttal, which would have been more effective in the face of the Republicans’ continuing smear campaign.

He might have attacked the Republican propaganda machine, but instead attacked the farmer, alluding to his hefty frame. When the man said he watched a lot of television news, the former vice president retorted, “I know you do. And by the way, that’s why I’m not sedentary . . . Look, the reason I’m running is because I’ve been around a long time and I know more than most people know, and I can get things done. That’s why I’m running. If you want to check my shape, let’s do pushups together, man. Let’s run. Let’s do anything you want to do.” The man said he wouldn’t vote for him, and Biden tried a lame wisecrack: “You’re old too vote for me.”

Help!

One of these days, the cunning Republicans are going to set up Biden by putting an old-looking guy in the audience, some character who works out at a real gym every day so he can call Biden’s bluff on doing pushups together. The country will see Biden huff and puff and finally give out.

It’s doubtful that persuadable voters really want chest-thumping, especially in the general election, where the Democrats have to rally centrists who mourn the demise under Trump of courteous discussion and debate. Biden’s demeanor makes him appear vulnerable to manipulation.

If he is nominated and Trump is able to draw him into a trash-talking contest, with such epithets as “Sleepy Joe,” Biden will be playing on Trump’s home course against an adversary who knows every sand trap and fairway. And Trump has no moral brakes. Biden does. Trump wades in gutters where Biden probably wouldn’t go, and wouldn’t look comfortable if he did.

It’s fair to believe that Trump has acquired a solid base of support partly because he appears authentic—repulsive, but authentic—unlike the usual gallery of carefully scripted career politicians. Lying constantly, he wears candor like a disguise, enough to deceive voters who think they are seeing reality. Those who buy that image won’t go for Biden whatever he does. And if he tries to trump Trump by playing the obnoxious tough guy, he’ll look phony.

Whoever becomes the Democratic nominee will face the same difficulty of trying to parry Trump’s insults with the strength and wit to mobilize voters, while also representing the promise of civility and even healing. It’s a tricky line to walk, which requires a certain personality and behavior that calls to Americans’ best impulses, not to the crude hatreds that Trump has legitimized, and which have contaminated much of the country’s social landscape.

The electorate is divided along such dogmatic lines that policy choices have mostly been already made. Persuadable voters need something else: they have to like the Democratic candidate, not just the plans and programs. Insulting a skeptical voter does not make you very likeable.

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David K. Shipler

David K. Shipler is a Washington Monthly contributing writer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of seven books, and former foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He blogs at The Shipler Report.