30 September 2020

The Biden-Trump shitshow

I couldn’t sleep last night, yet again, so I watched the US presidential debate between Biden and Trump. CNN appropriately called it a “shitshow”. Indeed, as a typical Frenchman keen about politics, it was probably one of the worst political debates I have watched in my life. True to myself, I emailed the Biden campaign just now to provide my “advice” to Mr. Biden – not that I’m a fan but he’s the least worst option. Here’s what I sent, stripped of the polite starting and ending formulations:

After watching the first presidential debate, I would have a few suggestions to make for Mr. Biden's future appearances at the upcoming debates. First of all, I would like to praise him for having always tried to focus on the American people, namely by looking straight at the camera, something Mr. Trump didn't do a single time.

Having said that, there are a few things I thought could prove useful to brainstorm on or take into account for future appearances:

1. Be careful with laughing/grinning: smiling is OK and the amount of laughter by Mr. Biden last night seemed appropriate, but it's always at risk of appearing condescending. I would encourage him to keep a straight face, at most shake his head in disapproval, while looking straight at the camera, as opposed to looking down (which tends to give the impression of someone who feels beaten).

2. Avoid any name calling: while I laughed at Mr. Trump being called a "clown" or asked to "shut up", I would try to stick to a perfectly neutral stance, simply decrying the number of interruptions by the other side. In fact, Mr. Biden could have a stack of numbers ready to display every time he's interrupted during his 2-minute speeches: without saying anything, he could pull up those cards with whatever the cumulative number of interruptions by Mr. Trump has been till that point. It would show Mr. Biden as someone who remains professional while taking the situation as easily as he can.

Additionally, Mr. Biden could also respectfully ask Mr. Trump to stop calling him "Joe": as far as he knows, he could say, they are not on friendly terms. That type of polite attitude could possibly resonate well with older generations.

What would be a more risky move would be to tell Mr. Trump that, during the debate, he's no longer president but a candidate like Mr. Biden is: it's risky because Mr. Trump would likely fight back and say he's still the president (which he is). There's a precedent in the 1988 French presidential debate (watch from 30:50 to 31:15 in the video below) when those very semantics astutely backfired against the challenger.

3. Always focus on the American people: for every long answer, I would try to avoid attacking Mr. Trump for more than a third of the allotted time, spending two thirds of the remaining time on what Mr. Biden's vision is. People need to be inspired, not be constantly drawn back into the ugliness of petty accusations and constant lies.

In addition, Mr. Biden should possibly make it more obvious in the minds of the viewers that he can be president: a simple yet effective technique is for instance to start a number of his sentences by "I, as president, would do X" – or more daringly, "I, as president, will do X" – as Mr. Hollande did before winning against Mr. Sarkozy in 2012.

Finally, Mr. Biden should keep displaying empathy for what the American people are going through: that’s why his looking straight at the camera, addressing viewers at home, is exactly on point. But he can go beyond, especially when he’s already mentioning specific examples, for instance when talking about his deceased son Beau: “I know how it feels to lose a son to a disease; I have felt the pain; I feel the pain still; so you can trust me to take this pandemic, or any health crisis, very seriously, so we focus – together with the medical experts – on saving every life we can.”