Donald Trump came into the first presidential debate with a cogent strategy: dominate questions and answers with interjection until he could control the rhythm of what was being said.
Beyond his emphasis on law and order and the booming economy of last year, he also seemed to come in with a specific personal approach: Get Joe Biden to pop off and shout, something he was once known for as a younger politician. Trump drove repeatedly at Biden’s intelligence (a historic popping off point) and his younger son (a more recent occasion for the defensive word from Biden).
And for the disorienting bulk of that debate, with the exception of the occasional direct-to-camera appeal from either candidate, Trump’s constant weaving in and out of his own questions and Biden’s answers created a chaotic but effective overload — unless you were paying keen attention, you might have only caught fragments of words and phrases and subjects swarming by.
Except for one part, where the two strategies gradually combined into one and blossomed into a driveby nightmare moment: Trump attacking Biden’s living son, while Biden spoke about his late son.
“My son was in Iraq. He spent a year there. He got the Bronze Star. He got the Conspicuous Service medal. He was not a loser. He was a patriot—” Biden said while talking about the late Beau Biden, referencing the recent Atlantic reporting in which anonymous officials alleged Trump called various kinds of vets names.
“Oh, really?” Trump cut in.
“—and the people left behind there were heroes, and I resent—”
“Oh, really? You talking about Hunter?” Trump cut in.
“I’m talking about my son, Beau Biden. You’re talking about—”
“I don’t know Beau. I know Hunter,” Trump cut in again. “Hunter got thrown out of the military, he got dishonorably discharged for cocaine use, and he didn’t have a job until you became vice president. He made a fortune in Ukraine, China, in Moscow, and various other places. He made a fortune. And he didn’t have a job,” Trump went on as Biden repeated that it wasn’t true.
“My son, my son, my son,” Biden finally cut back in, “like a lot of people, like a lot of people we know at home, had a drug problem. He’s overtaken it, he’s fixed it, he’s worked on it, and I’m proud of him.”
Then they went back and forth a bit more about the work Hunter Biden did overseas during the last decade, and family ethics. Hunter Biden, who primarily worked as a lobbyist in Washington while his father was a senator but before his father became vice president, was administratively discharged from the naval reserves after testing positive for cocaine in 2013; he’s dealt with serious drug and alcohol addiction, and spoke about that, and the overseas work, last year in a bracing New Yorker interview.
But the collision of what Trump kept trying to do (disorient and upend) with the grim reality that he put this all to someone speaking about his adult child who is no longer living surfaced a jarring moment of amorality.
Trump’s ability to shock, dodge, and weave never ends, and it’s almost always about reaction or provocation, with flexibility in target and substance, rather than an underlying central argument. His genius in this way is a selling point to defenders — that he will drive at any exception to own and overcome — and to others, a point of overwhelming bleakness and damage.
Either way: It’s always like this with Trump.