This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
Assuming anything about the debates is the height of speculation. They may or may not happen as scheduled for reasons ranging from the status of the COVID-19 pandemic to Trump’s remarks about the Debate Commission’s handling of the procedures.
However, one thing is certain. Trump has painted himself into a deep corner when it comes to the public’s expectations about Biden’s performance.
His mocking descriptions of Biden started months ago with relentless “sleepy Joe” tweets. Then they devolved to, “I honestly don’t think he knows what office he is running for.” Finally, Trump gave some vague warnings that Biden was going to be put in a “home while super left radical crazies run the country.” Trump’s key spokespeople regularly attack Biden’s mental acuity.
There was a particularly vicious strike on Biden’s mental health a few days ago by Victor Davis Hanson in the National Review.
So, it is safe to say the Trump 2020 campaign is all in on portraying Biden as too old, doddering and senile to run the country. Someone who might drool on his shirt.
But, according to those who know him, that is clearly not true. Friends who attended a fundraiser for him last summer told me he was “sharp and focused in conversation.” Recent interviews and his Democratic primary debates do not depict Biden as anything less than in the here and now, firmly cognizant of the questions before him. Is he capable of confusion, rambling musings and tangential anecdotes? Yes, but that is also the stock in trade of the current President.
The 2020 debates might end up feeling like a conversation between Florida seniors in the 1985 film “Cocoon,” before the aliens gave them the “life force.” But Biden will not come out the loser if Trump lets himself be Trump, as the internet is ablaze with videos of his gaffes, incoherent musings and stuttering malapropisms.
There are several dozen business books about marketing strategies that explicitly warn against the concept of “Overselling.” Why? Because overselling leads to false expectations, which invariably results in disappointment. We have all experienced it. Real-estate ads are famous for this mistake. House or apartment descriptions at odds with the facts on the ground create distrust and disappointment when the premises are visited. The credibility of the broker is questioned, and future recommendations are clouded in skepticism.
Trump is mired in this mistake. Not only may Biden seem sharper than anticipated, but Trump’s credibility (if he had any) will take yet another knock.
Why would Trump make this colossal mistake? Two possible reasons: 1) He defied campaign gravity in 2015. Against Jeb Bush’s admonishment during the Republican debates, Trump did “insult [his] way to the presidency.” While the crowd cheered at Bush’s astute remark and Trump gave a sheepish grin, he did use insult to pave his way to the Presidency. He insulted everyone. His base loved it, and swing voters either forgave him or overlooked his non-normative presidential antics.
So, in campaign 2020, why argue with success? Why not rub the magic lamp of demeaning monikers and nasty characterizations one more time? Why not explore the bottom of the bag of tricks that worked before?
The second possibility is a little more speculative, but grounded in reality. A recent New York Times article illuminated the discomfort Trump’s campaign managers are experiencing with his “self-sabotaging” behavior. The article speculated that perhaps Trump did not want to win a second term. I agree. As I have written before, I think Trump is clearly in agony. Many psychologists believe he suffers from impostor syndrome and facing another four years of having to pretend he is a competent president likely horrifies him. An imposter syndrome characteristic is self-sabotage as a way out of the daily torture of faking it. Tony Schwartz, co-author of Trump’s “Art of the Deal,” diagnosed Trump as an imposter syndrome sufferer years ago.
So, if Trump knows Biden is not a senile fool, Trump is making sure he will lose even more credibility and electoral votes by painting the former VP as just that. Trump’s recent statements that Biden may win the election because “people don’t love me enough,” could be wish fulfillment.
All of this assumes that Biden can be focused and logical in a debate. More than platform policy is at stake here. Trump has attacked Biden on very real but concrete grounds — his mental state.
Biden certainly did not seem senile or demented in a speech and press conference on the COVID crisis Monday in Delaware. He read from a teleprompter, like all politicians do, then answered random press questions in a totally coherent and often informative manner. Did I see age? Yes, but not the lying, rambling inanity Trump doles out on a daily basis.
If Biden can show the American people that he is not who Trump says he is, his already widening poll advantage will continue. Stay tuned as American debate watchers become armchair geriatric psychiatrists if and when the debates come to fruition.
Jonathan Russo has been an executive in the New York media world for 40 years and has written about politics, economics, foreign policy and cultural issues for over a decade. His work has appeared in The HuffPost, Observer, Daily News, Times of Israel, Worth.com, Real Clear Markets and Real Clear World.