U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University on October 22, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The degrading cynicism of Joe Biden

While Trump was firm but measured, Biden’s response was to consistently stoke fear of death

Donald Trump won last night’s debate by confounding expectations. After the first meeting between he and Joe Biden a few weeks ago – way back in the barely remembered days before Trump had and beat Covid-19 – voters could be forgiven if they expected another bare-knuckled brawl. Instead they got a rather different Trump: he was firm but measured, calmly keeping the heat on Biden throughout the evening and with clear command of the details on a wide array of subjects. The contrast with the Trump of the first debate could not have been more striking and it will serve him well.

Joe Biden was the same as ever, but perhaps even more so. And it didn’t look good. Trump supporters have long looked forward to a Biden meltdown occurring onstage during a debate, while Democrats have privately feared the same thing; knowing that with Joe it is always a real possibility. After all, he’s been to prone wandering off course, telling patently false stem-winders, and insulting his audiences throughout his career. At nearly 80 years old, the prospect must terrify his staff.

Joe Biden has been using private tragedy to make political hay for decades

But I was struck during the debate that while age is a real issue – no one is immune to its depredations and serious countries shouldn’t pretend otherwise when selecting their head of state – that the most off-putting element of Joe Biden is his willingness to trade on people’s fears for personal gain. I realized during the debate that for Biden, everything – every person, every significant life event, every interaction – becomes part of the show. He’s been doing it so long he probably isn’t even aware of it anymore.

In the last debate he set a debater’s trap for Trump so that he could strategically bring up the death of his son Beau. Trump saw it coming and the blow didn’t land. But the fact that Biden would use his son’s death to score points in a debate stuck with me. It’s unseemly, cynical, and wrong. Some people pushed back on my analysis saying, no, surely not, no one would do that. But it turns out that Joe Biden has been using private tragedy to make political hay for decades. And worse, he plays fast and loose with the truth which gives away the game.

It’s no secret that his first wife was killed in a car accident in which Hunter and Beau were injured. It was horrible and no doubt very painful. But by the 1980s when drunk driving became a major issue in the United States, Joe started telling the story of how his wife was killed by a drunk driver. The problem is that the man who drove the truck that struck his wife’s car wasn’t drunk. Police never even suspected it. Biden eventually stopped telling the story that way after about 20 years when the truck driver’s daughter implored him not to malign her deceased father.

The contrast with the Trump of the first debate could not have been more striking

This came to mind during the debate as I watched Biden again trading on the fear of death. During the discussion of Covid-19, Donald Trump explained the serious nature of the threat from the virus, how little anyone knew in January and February, the steep learning curve since then, and the rapid progress doctors and researchers have made in treating the disease. Trump himself recovered quickly after taking Regeneron. Trump’s message was simple, responsible, and statesmanlike: we are dealing with a serious health threat, there are trade-offs in every possible response and every government on the planet is trying to adapt in real time, but there are also now very good therapies that reduce the risk of death. Those things are all true and people need to know that. Recovery rates even for high-risk patients are rising because of the treatments.

Biden’s response was to stoke more fear of death. He gave his pre-programmed, “I’m serious now”, eyes-looking-into-the-camera melodramatic, made for tv, moment and said, there are empty chairs at your dinner table, people who won’t come home again, and hundreds of thousands more deaths coming all because of Donald Trump. He was trading on the memory of dead people yet again.

There were many moments for Trump supporters to cheer. He got Biden to admit that he is going to legalize the vast population of illegal aliens in the country. Estimates vary between 11-30 million. This is a very contentious issue to say the least and one that, if implemented, will undercut the wages of working-class Americans. Then Trump got Biden to say that he’s going to put the oil industry out of business. These are sure to please the Left-most element of the Democratic coalition, but neither position is supported by middle America and it is absolute poison in the places that Biden hopes to win like Arizona, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Further to this was his promise of confrontations with countries across the globe – including China, North Korea, and Russia – offers the prospect of more foreign war; something to which both parties have a historical addiction to, and that Donald Trump has been trying to break. It was a very dark Joe Biden on stage last night. And yet it wasn’t his policies that were the most striking for me. It was the callous cynicism born of long-term daily use that will stay with me.

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