A Tale of Two Town Halls

But only Trump makes lying central to his campaign.

On Thursday, Joe Biden participated in a CNN town hall near his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania. It was similar to the one President Trump held on Tuesday in Philadelphia. It’s not hard to understand why they both chose the Keystone State. According to the analysts at FiveThirtyEight, Biden has 96 percent chance of winning the election if he carries Pennsylvania, which compares to an 84 percent chance for the president.

The reviews of Biden’s performance have so far been vastly less critical than the near-total condemnation that greeted Trump’s erratic one. One of the main critiques of Trump’s town hall was that he delivered “a firehose of lying,” as CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale put it.

Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler said Trump made “four Pinocchio” statements “over and over again.” But Kessler also found fault with some of Biden’s material.

At one point, Biden incorrectly attributed a University of Washington estimate on how many lives could be saved by wearing masks to Centers of Disease Control director Dr. Robert Redfield. He was also sloppy when he expressed incredulity that some people in the media make a big deal out of him not having an Ivy League degree. No one has suggested that he’d be the first president who didn’t attend an Ivy–in fact, Ronald Reagan graduated from Eureka College in Illinois.

But one thing to note about Biden’s misstatements is that they weren’t exactly crowdpleasers. Democrats tend to cringe when their candidate wastes a good attack line by overstating the case, and they actually care when statistics are misattributed or mistakes are made in describing recent events. Biden will mostly likely clean these things up rather than make them a staple of his campaign.

Trump’s inaccuracies were more familiar and completely different in nature. He lied for the umpteenth time about the Obama administration not bequeathing him an adequate supply of ventilators. He lied about when we can expect a vaccine, and he will continue to make this a key part of his pitch for reelection. He lied about how America compares to other nations with respect to the pandemic, and he once again said nonsensically that we’d have fewer cases if we did fewer tests. Whether he was falsely accusing Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden of criticizing his (belated and incomplete) travel ban on China or disputing that he had downplayed the threat of the virus, Trump’s lies were part of a routine. His audience enjoys it when calls COVID-19 the “Kung-Flu” or the “China virus.” They get a big kick out of attacks on Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. Trump tells these lies to entertain his base, and he tries to evade responsibility at every turn. That’s why no amount of fact-checking will deter him and he will repeat these same lies for as long as the campaign lasts.

By contrast, Joe Biden will probably continue to talk about his lack of an Ivy League degree, but he’ll be careful not to say he’d be the first president without one. He’ll do these things in part because he’s not a fundamentally dishonest person, but also because Democrats don’t enjoy or reward dishonesty.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com