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.
The most important difference, though, was starkly highlighted by the side-by-side presentations. For Trump, the supposed businessman, everything is a war, every question an attack, and every attack demands a counterpunch. Biden, the career politician, treated each encounter as a sale. When he was challenged—on fracking and the Green New Deal, for example—he did not counterpunch. He made a counteroffer.
Trump needs enemies. After the debate, his campaign released this statement: “President Trump soundly defeated NBC’s Savannah Guthrie in her role as debate opponent and Joe Biden surrogate. President Trump masterfully handled Guthrie’s attacks and interacted warmly and effectively with the voters in the room.” The Biden campaign was not so quick to offer its own release, in part because Biden lingered afterward in the hall, talking and taking questions face-to-face, but perhaps also because it did not feel the need to identify a target for hate and rage.
At the end of the scheduled time, each candidate was invited to address a broader question. Guthrie asked Trump what he would say to uncertain voters. A questioner from the audience asked Biden what he would do to unite the country in the event that he lost the election in November. Trump answered by saying that he would tell the undecided voter what a great job he was doing as president. Biden answered that if he lost, he would have to accept that he had failed as a candidate—but that he would never accept that the divisions in the country are as real as Donald Trump wants them to be.
The contrast was striking and poignant. Even more striking: Trump failed to use his open opportunity effectively. He said nothing to that hypothetical undecided voter that was as forceful as his opening quasi-apology for QAnon, which he praised as a movement strongly opposed to pedophilia. That will be Trump’s most quoted statement of the evening. Biden, by contrast, contemplating defeat, delivered his best case for victory: a statement of faith in the country as something bigger than himself.
One of Trump’s spokespeople derided the Biden event as “an episode of Mister Rodgers Neighborhood.” (In authentic Trump style, she misspelled the name.) If this was meant to suggest that the evening was all smiles and saccharine—well, it only showed that the spokesperson had never watched the classic children’s program hosted by Fred Rogers.
Rogers well understood the darkness in the world. The maker of a documentary about him explained: “What he’s doing is not just providing joy for children but really trying to allay fear.” But of course, in Trump world, allaying fear is the last thing you want to do. What you want to do in Trump world is incite fear, stoke fear, manipulate fear, and exploit fear. That can apparently work—at least with some people, and at least for a limited time. But only for some people, and only for a limited time. Rogers’s show ran for decades. The Man in the High Castle ended after four seasons.