The Hard Problem of Bringing Trump Into Focus

This preoccupation with putting Trump into clear focus is also the right way to understand the tug of war over debates. Until a couple of weeks ago, it very much looked as if, for the first time in more than 50 years, we were not going to have a debate between the two major parties’ presidential candidates. In the past four years, the candidates have flipped positions on the issue of debates: Although Trump bailed on one of the three scheduled debates with Biden in 2020 and refused to participate in any of the Republican primary debates in this current election, once he sensed he might have a strategic advantage being onstage with Biden in this race, he suddenly became a debate evangelist, challenging Biden to debate him “any time, any place.” Biden, meanwhile, appeared to be terrified of the prospect, repeatedly refusing to commit to a debate with Trump, at one point saying “it depends on his behavior.”

Trump’s behavior didn’t change, but Biden ultimately agreed to the debates for the same reason he made the videos: He needs this election to be about Trump. “Don’t compare me to the almighty,” Biden is fond of saying, “compare me to the alternative.” Biden believes that debating Trump may be the only way to get voters to focus on his opponent.

The conditions Biden demanded for the debates also follow the logic of the videos. Instead of agreeing to the debates proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates — which, per tradition, would have been held in front of a live audience — Biden stipulated that the debates be held in a TV studio with just the two candidates and the moderators. Moreover, for the first debate, scheduled for June 27, the Biden campaign has requested that the candidates’ microphones be active only during their allotted speaking times. Just as in the videos, Trump and Biden will be going head to head; just as in the videos, Biden will be able to get a word in edgewise.

Despite Trump’s four years in the White House — despite his having taken over one of our two major political parties, remade it in his image and bent it to his will — he continues to be, in many ways, more of a media creature (and creation) than a political one. That is his greatest strength, liberating him from some Washington rules and expectations, but at the same time, it is also a vulnerability — making it easy to reduce him to something freakish, laughable and, above all, small. The X videos do something like that by essentially aligning Biden with the voters. Just like them, he’s watching and gawking at Trump. In one video, Biden listens to Trump bizarrely compare himself to Aleksei Navalny. “What’s he talking about?” Biden asks.

For Biden, the debates will have been worth it if the image voters take away from them is not necessarily of him, appearing vigorous or quick on his feet, but rather of his opponent — bereft of a cheering crowd, shouting into a turned-off microphone. And if not, then Biden will have to figure out some other way to make this race about the alternative.

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