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Artillery Row

Trump is waging asymmetric warfare – and it’s working

Biden came in for some rough treatment in the first presidential debate

“Teacher, help. The President is being mean to me.” That’s the rough translation of Joe Biden’s frequent, desperate appeals to moderator, Chris Wallace during last night’s debate with Donald Trump. The former Vice President came in for some rough treatment by the current leader of the free world.

From the starting shot, President Trump was on the front foot, peppering Biden with a flurry of verbal blows: taunts, accusations, barbed criticisms for Biden, declarations of sublime political skill, triumph against longs odds, and exemplary selflessness for himself. Biden didn’t know what hit him. But he should have. And so should have his advisers and debate coaches. This is Trump’s style.

Trump is a streetfighter waging asymmetric warfare against a traditional foe who is reviewing the rules of engagement and consulting the lawyers back at headquarters before doing anything. And all the while he’s getting pummelled. Idealists will say that it wasn’t very presidential, that they didn’t dig into policy and educate the American people, where was the dignity?

Welcome to electoral politics. It’s always been thus. Founding Father John Adams delighted in calling fellow Founder Alexander Hamilton, “the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler.” Adams himself came in for similar treatment during the election of 1800 when he was called an hermaphrodite reportedly at the behest of Thomas Jefferson.

We didn’t get any of that last night. But there’s another debate next week so keep your fingers crossed.

One of the most interesting and telling exchanges came about an hour into the debate. In some ways each man showed himself in his purest form. Joe Biden delivered what was very obviously a well-rehearsed, set-piece attack on President Trump. You could see the windup, like a boxer pulling his arm way back, fist clenched, preparing to deliver the knockout blow. Biden started by repeating the accusation that Trump disrespectfully criticises the military, calling them losers and suckers. The story has been debunked repeatedly by multiple sources including those hostile to the president like John Bolton. But it’s part of the Biden campaign’s strategy. So he levels the accusations and then begins to eulogise his son, Beau Biden, who served in Iraq, and later died of brain cancer. This makes it all personal to Joe, you see. He’s defending his dead son against a mythical slander from the bad orange man. Biden even points a finger at Trump, “My son is not a loser!”

Trauma mining to score points in a debate is a desperately cynical piece of political theatre. But, I suppose they calculate that if it works you get to be president. (I’ll pass, thanks.) It was pure Biden: scripted, saccharine, playing by the rules of a game that has long since ended. In case you think I’m too cynical, that surely this couldn’t have been orchestrated, Joe Biden’s official Twitter account posted a photo of Joe and Beau with the caption, “Beau was not a loser” just as the debate ended.

And just so, Trump. He looked at his podium and quietly, respectfully, asked, which son Biden was talking about. Of course, he knew, but he played the game forcing Biden to respond, Beau. “Oh, I don’t know him. I know Hunter.”

Trump was agile, aggressive, and vigorous

And then listed the accusations against Hunter: he took a $1.5 billion investment from China into the fledgling investment company he ran with John Kerry’s son while his father was Vice President and en route to China. He received $3.5 million from the mayor of Moscow. He had a sinecure from a Ukranian energy company while his father was Obama’s pointman on Ukraine policy. (NB: Hunter had no experience in business let along the energy business.) It was as sweet a move as I’ve ever seen. The knockout punch was coming with all the force Joe Biden could muster and Trump simply sidestepped it and counterpunched.

It was an impressive display of natural animal cunning. And it could make the difference in the election. Trump was agile, aggressive, and vigorous, taking what he wanted when he wanted it. This offends some people’s sensibilities. He’s transgressive. He doesn’t play according to the rules. But for others, that’s part of the appeal.

It’s no secret that the ruling class in America despises the country class. If you’re one of those people who don’t live in coastal cities and subscribe to the same worldview as the elite aspirants hoping for a job at a billionaire-backed NGO or an internship that might lead to a job at McKinsey then you’re a deplorable, a CHUD, and definitely racist and whatever bad things are happening to you, your family, and your inland town are your just deserts.

One of Trump’s main functions and biggest appeals is that he exposes the occupational elites that are credentialed but not expert in much of anything. Everyone knows it. Imposter syndrome is rampant. And Trump preys on their insecurities which is what provokes such outrageous reactions from his enemies. But a lot of Americans who live in interior America and get unglamorous jobs at slowly declining wages, raise their families want nothing more than to be left alone by the credentialed but unaccomplished strivers who hate them. For those people, Trump is their champion.

They probably don’t aspire to be like Trump, but they like the fact that he exposes the bankruptcy of the undeserving ruling class. And for them, Trump’s debate tonight was a tour de force. It was aggressive, it was funny, he said the quiet part out loud, he broke the rules in public that are normally only broken in private. That won him the election in 2016. It won him the debate last night. And it might just get him re-elected in November.

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