The Biden-Trump Debate, 29.09.2020

Thanks to a spot of insomnia, I awoke last night at about 2.30 am Brussels time and was able to catch the final third or so of the Great Debate.

The opinions aired on CNN and on BBC World just after the close of the debate were fairly uniform: that it had been ‘chaotic’ and the worst such event in living memory, though it reflected fairly the low level of political culture which the United States is presently experiencing. Most commentators agreed that the debate, such as it was, more like pig wrestling in the mud, will not change the minds of voters and will not influence the 10 or 15% of Americans who said they were undecided before the event. They did not see much discussion of the policies that the two sides plan to implement if they win the election, only a lot of name calling, heckling and interruptions.  Everyone felt certain that there will be no further debates this season, because this one was a dud.

There were, on the Biden side, commentators who said that the former Vice President had done well. He had not made any gaffes, he had held his own in 90 minutes against an aggressive and emotional opponent.

Of course, both CNN and the BBC are mainstream media that were against Trump in 2016 and have not gotten friendlier towards him over the past four years. Their remarks on how Biden performed have to be understood in that light.

My first thoughts from watching the debate live in its last third or so were very different:  during that entire segment Biden was flagging.  Yes, there were no gaffes. But there was no mental force, he was searching for words and even for concepts that were eluding him. This was beyond any doubt a man whose intellectual faculties are failing.  Not quite senile, but well on his way. And if this is how he performs before the election, then we can well imagine that he will be a wreck in two years’ time, not to mention by the end of his first term. Will this be the man to deal as an equal, nay as a superior being with other world ‘leaders’ on the international stage? 

That was a purely rhetorical question. The answer is flatly “no.” Calling Trump Putin’s “puppy” may sound clever, though it is absolutely false.  Whose ‘puppy’ Biden will be remains to be seen.

People close to Biden know and understand this fact.  It was not just a slip of the tongue when a month or so ago his vice presidential running mate, Kamala Harris spoke of a “Harris Administration” in answer to a journalist’s question before backtracking and changing that to a “Biden-Harris Administration.”

Trump is precisely correct when he suggests that Biden will be the plaything of people at his side. Trump thickens the paint when he says they will be radical left Democrats.  Surely, that is one possibility. Another is that he will be in the pocket of the US Intelligence Services, of the Pentagon, of the hacks still remaining in the State Department.  Even the obstreperous and often obnoxious Trump has had a hard time staying out of their grasp.

I concede that upon watching excerpts from the debate taken from the start, Biden appeared to be in  better shape than in the segment I watched live.  He delivered some punches, usually below the belt, calling Trump ‘a liar,’ ‘a clown’ and telling him repeatedly just ‘to shut up.’  Biden’s supporters regret that he was baited by Trump to stoop so low and speak in such an ‘un-presidential’ manner.  

Indeed, I recall how my mother, in her late 80s, a life-long Democrat, had spoken of Biden in 2012 as such a ‘gentleman.’  To whom was he a gentleman back then?  To white Social Security claimants like my mother. Not to the rest of the world.  To the world at large Biden was a vicious imperialist, an authoritarian who presumed to dictate to them how they should conduct their affairs.  In that guise he spoke before the Ukrainian and Georgian parliaments. In that guise in 2011 he instructed Vladimir Putin to abandon plans to return to the Russian presidency and instead to take up the chairmanship of the Russian Olympics Committee.  Could one possibly construe Biden’s past behavior as meddling in the internal affairs of other countries, something which the United States finds totally unacceptable when applied to its own political life?  Absolutely!

The world knows what Trump’s “America First” means.  It willingly has forgotten that Biden and the Democrats today are no less ‘in your face’ in pursuing national interest and denying the existence of national interest to every other nation state.  The difference between the parties and the candidates is only one of frank aggression (Trump) versus honeyed and deeply hypocritical words about ‘universal values’ (Biden).  Even in industrial policy, Biden last night managed to present a program that was stolen shamelessly from Trump’s playbook when he said he would promote a ‘buy American’ program that would be directly contradicting the WTO principles.

If Biden came on strong at the start of the debate and ended as a smirking but wordless mutterer, that tells you he lacks the staying power to put in a full day in the White House and master the challenges that come up daily.  Trump may be no smarter, no better read than the day he took the oath of office in 2017 but he is mentally alert and resistant to directives from the bureaucracy.  They can, with the assistance of the Congress, outfox him and outmaneuver him, but they cannot tame him. That is his saving virtue and the one fact that so far has prevented the United States from slipping into a one-party police state under the flag of  Democracy Promotion values.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]