In a nightmare alternate universe, Americans find hope by viewing films from a different dimension, where life unfolds as normal. That’s the plot of the Amazon science-fiction series The Man in the High Castle. It was also the experience many Americans had as they flipped back and forth between two town halls last night, one on NBC with President Donald Trump, the other on ABC with former Vice President Joe Biden.
Professionals often watch political debates with the sound off. Because of the bizarre format of the evening, I watched last night’s with the sound on, on two screens at once, sometimes focusing on one dialogue, sometimes on the other. The most striking contrast was how much louder the Trump event was than the Biden event. Trump shouts. Biden talks. Toggling between the two was like switching from heavy metal to midnight jazz.
Other differences became apparent too. When Trump has to deal with something he doesn’t like—such as Savannah Guthrie’s questions about his debts—he blusters great clouds of defensive words. The words do not form sentences, do not cohere into ideas, do not contain truthful information. But they do form a defensive wall of noise against unwelcome inquiry. When Biden got a challenging question—for example, whether Trump deserved some credit for peace between Israel and the United Arab Emirates—he used the bullfighter method: Let the charge advance far enough to dissipate some of its energy, and only then strike back. So Biden allowed that Trump did deserve “a little” credit, but “not much.” And then, rather than arguing the point, he offered a different frame for thinking about foreign-policy success: trust by allies, acceptance of America’s standing in the world.