And the horse you rode in on

The first US presidential TV debate, Cleveland, Ohio

Artillery Row Sketch

“You picked the wrong guy on the wrong night at the wrong time,” Joe Biden told Donald Trump. In the mouth of John Wayne, it would have meant that someone was about to get a lickin’. But, as someone nearly said at another of these events, Joe Biden is no John Wayne.

Wayne, who tended to the bulky side, might have been cast in the Trump role for Tuesday night’s debate, though he would have struggled to deliver the torrent of words that poured out of the president. Angry at the world, filled with hatred, it would have been the Wayne of The Searchers, not the good-natured sheriff of Rio Bravo.

Biden is no Clint Eastwood, either. At best, he might be Alan Ladd in Shane, a small, almost delicate man, apparently no match for the tougher, meaner gunfighters in the saloon. Jack Palance, the meanest of those gunfighters, would have made an outstanding Trump: he had the snarl for it.

“Elections have consequences.” Trump opened events in Cleveland with a point that was unarguable. America and the world are living, or in some cases dying, with those consequences.

Trump dominated the 90 minutes. Even when the picture was split and Joe Biden was speaking, it was Trump who drew the eye, filling his side of the screen, brooding, scowling. He interrupted, he hectored, he threw out insults, utterly untroubled by requests for him to stop.

It’s no use pleading with Trump to behave

There was a moderator – Chris Wallace of Fox News – there somewhere, and obviously Biden was present, but the focus was Trump. At first, the feeling was of watching two junior executives trying to manage a boss whom they know to be a thug, but whom they can’t bring themselves to confront. They politely tried to engage him and steer him round, he didn’t so much brush them aside as charge them down.

They touched briefly on the question of abortion, and the possibility that changing the Supreme Court balance will lead to a change in the rules: three men in their seventies, talking about women’s rights. “We’ve got a lot to unpack here, gentlemen,” Wallace said, changing the subject. “We’ve got a lot of time.” Not that much time, it turned out: they never returned to the issue.

Trump’s monologues are a tidal wave. The sentences don’t make sense, but the meaning washes over you. Insulin would be “so cheap it’s like water”. Nobody wanted to go to Biden’s rallies, everyone wanted to hear what Trump had to say. Sure, he carried a face mask, but he didn’t wear a huge one like Biden did.

“I’m the moderator of this debate and I would like to ask my question,” Wallace pleaded. Moments later, he tried to placate the president: “You’ll be happy, sir, I’m about to pick up one of your points.”

After about 15 minutes, Biden began to rise to the baiting from the president – “Will you shut up, man!” – and after that the debate became more of a brawl. There was no structure. Were they talking about the Supreme Court, or Covid, or the economy? They rolled around the floor of the saloon, hurling bottles of whiskey at each other and smashing chairs on each other’s heads.

Biden called Trump a clown and “the worst president America’s ever had.” In what must be a first for these contests for the highest office of the greatest nation on earth, Trump told Biden: “You’re a number two.”

Wallace was unable to rise to the occasion. It’s no use pleading with Trump to behave. Maybe he could have thrown a bucket of water over him, or pulled out a shotgun from underneath his desk. But Wallace wasn’t that kind of character.

Increasingly, he resembled the public official in the Western who worries that all the gunfights are bad for business – perhaps the mayor from High Noon, who tells lawman Gary Cooper that things really would be better if he left town, rather than confront the villains. “GENTLEMEN!” he shouted at one point. “I hate to raise my voice. I think that the country would be better served if we had fewer interruptions.”

There were revealing flashes from the president. Discussing Covid, he began to talk about “what I was put through.” Does Trump feel that he is the real victim of the virus that’s killed 200,000 of his citizens? It’s possible he does. Discussing his tax bill, he said he’d done what anyone would have done “unless they’re stupid”.

Biden was often surprisingly bad at delivering what must have been planned pieces, confusing his Medicare and Medicaid, stumbling over numbers. But he landed some blows where it counted. “It’s not about my family or his family, it’s about your family,” he told voters at the end of one row.

The Democrat may well have been happy to have the focus on the president, given that his main pitch is, ultimately, that he’s not Trump. “Under this president we’ve become weaker, sicker, poorer, more divided and more violent,” he summed up, towards the end.

“There has never been an administration that’s done what I’ve done,” Trump said, again unarguably.

Americans should know by now who Trump is. The question is whether Biden is Ladd, who ultimately kills Palance, or the farmer who confronts the villain in an earlier reel, and is gunned down in the street.

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