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The Trump campaign spent months portraying Biden as senile. That might be a mistake.

Trump lowered the bar for Biden’s debate performance. Why?

Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden exits his plane after landing in Cleveland, Ohio, to participate in the first presidential debate at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic on September 29, 2020.
Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

Donald Trump has made it very clear of what he thinks about Joe Biden. In his speeches, “Sleepy Joe” Biden is barely coherent, a “dumb guy” who “doesn’t know where the hell he is.” In online advertising, the Trump campaign has repeatedly alleged that Biden is “too old and out of it” to be president.

And during a Tuesday appearance on Fox & Friends, Trump ally Rudy Giuliani excitedly shared his theory that Biden has dementia and will “get through” the debate thanks to drugs typically used to treat attention deficit disorder.

Meanwhile, some Trump allies are currently busying themselves by pushing a conspiracy theory about Biden using an earpiece during the debate — a conspiracy theory that first originated in 2000 and resurfaced in 2004 during a debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry before being wielded against Hillary Clinton in 2016.

To be clear, there is absolutely no evidence for any of this.

But the play seems clear: If Biden trips up during the debate, he’s a “dumb guy.” If he seems competent, it’s because he had help. But by aggressively pushing the image of 77-year-old Joe Biden as a senile old man, the Trump campaign has unintentionally lowered the bar and made it easier for the Democratic candidate to succeed.

And rather than focus on his policy successes — or even on the major challenges facing the country, from the coronavirus pandemic to the economic disaster hurting so many American families — Trump would rather discuss fake earpieces and drug tests.

Pro-wrestling-style politics, but with a glaring flaw

Trump allies’ accusations of drug use and earpieces in the runup to Tuesday’s debate have proven to be part of a series of endless distractions — Biden won’t even debate! Demand drug tests! Check for hidden earpieces! Yell about how one candidate may have gotten the questions ahead of time (which is untrue)! — intended to heighten the tension and drama.

This isn’t new for Trump. In 2016, he demanded Hillary Clinton be drug-tested before the last debate as part of an all-out assault on her health because “at the beginning of her last debate, she was all pumped up at the beginning, and at the end it was like, huff, take me down. She could barely reach her car.”

These are tactics straight from pro wrestling, where it’s common to summon up distractions to heighten the tension before a match. They remain markedly effective, seeping from conspiracy theory-focused corners of the internet (from QAnon adherents to Facebook pages for conservatives) to mainstream outlets that do their best to debunk them but, by doing so, also give them more attention (a technique known as “trading up the chain”).

The challenge for Trump and his campaign, though, isn’t successfully spreading rumors. It’s that based on Trump’s rhetoric, Biden will be a success if he simply shows up and seems fully lucid.

This was a problem that Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien and Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh seemed to note a few weeks ago when the two began publicly praising Biden’s debate skills. (Murtaugh previously argued that Biden had declined cognitively.)

As’s Allahpundit wrote earlier this month, the GOP had spent months “inexplicably lowering [the bar for Biden] until it rested flat on the ground” until Stepien stepped in:

Until recently the Trump campaign’s line on Sleepy Joe was that he was in late-stage mental decline and would probably duck the debates altogether to avoid revealing that to the world. We’re now 18 days away and someone, probably Stepien, finally figured out that reducing expectations for Biden to the point that he only need speak in complete sentences to prove he’s fit for office was a bad idea.

Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer told Politico, “This idea of Biden not knowing how to debate is ridiculous. The more that expectations are lowered for him the worse.”

It’s more typical for a candidate or a campaign to play up the debating skills of their opponent, rather than argue in ads, as the Trump campaign did, that the opposition has lost their touch.

Trump doesn’t seem to be preparing for a debate victory, but instead readying himself and his allies to explain a humiliating loss in the style of a college football coach. Biden won’t have really won, they’ll argue — he’ll have had help.

But the real problem with this entire discussion is that it’s not just a distraction for the candidates; it’s also a distraction from the issues that Americans are most concerned about — the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic tumult.

Earlier Tuesday, Disney announced 28,000 layoffs. Those are 28,000 workers who have just lost their jobs, while future stimulus payments remain largely hypothetical.

So, sure, Trump’s “Biden is senile and using performance-enhancing substances” rhetoric is problematic because it’s both false and harmful to perceptions of his own debate performance. But it’s also problematic because it focuses on a very online atmosphere and elides the real problems Americans are facing — problems that, you might recall, he declared he alone could fix.

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