The Duelling Incomprehensibility of Biden and Trump in the 2020 Presidential Debates

At Thursday’s Presidential debate, Joe Biden and Donald Trump will face off in a historic rematch. These men, in addition to being the oldest major-party candidates in American history, are two singularly inarticulate politicians who struggle to formulate their thoughts clearly and who at times seem to have as adversarial a relationship to language as

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At Thursday’s Presidential debate, Joe Biden and Donald Trump will face off in a historic rematch. These men, in addition to being the oldest major-party candidates in American history, are two singularly inarticulate politicians who struggle to formulate their thoughts clearly and who at times seem to have as adversarial a relationship to language as they do to each other. William Empson famously catalogued seven types of ambiguity; reading Trump’s and Biden’s debate transcripts from the last election cycle, one can identify at least four kinds of incoherence: vagueness, meandering/getting distracted, mixing up proper nouns, and overusing filler words. Both fall prey to the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon (TOT), which occurs more frequently as people get older. In these situations, speakers cannot recall a word that is well known to them, but they can still ransack a vocabulary of ancillary words. TOT is often characterized by someone overproducing a lot of language around a target term, as in a game of Taboo. For example, Trump, in the second 2src2src debate, apparently blanked on the name of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and complained to Biden about “your friend in Michigan, where her husband is the only one allowed to do anything, it’s been like a prison.” (He also seemed to forget which safety measures Whitmer had taken against the coronavirus, retreating into baleful generalizations: “Take a look at what’s happening . . . now it was just ruled unconstitutional.”)

Both men occasionally leave their thoughts unfinished; however, Biden more often gives the impression of getting tangled up en route to a destination, whereas Trump tends to lack a destination to begin with. Both can appear intent on delivering the smallest possible load of information per unit of language. Here is Biden responding to a Time interviewer’s claim that “wage increases have not kept pace” with the rising prices caused by inflation:

Wage increases have exceeded what the cost of inflation, which you’re talking about as the prices that were pre-COVID prices. Pre-COVID prices are not the same as whether or not they—you have American, corporate America ripping off the public now.

Biden has punctuated an excess of linguistic padding with an overly dense shorthand. He’s gesturing toward a complicated idea: that wage increases are artificially low because of all the lower-wage workers who returned to their jobs after the pandemic. (A report from the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers notes that wage increases have outpaced inflation for fifteen months straight.) The composition of the workforce changed when quarantine began and again when it ended, a fact that should be taken into account when measuring how well off workers are. Biden is also pointing to corporate price gouging as a crucial driver of inflation. (One of his central promises to the electorate is that he will go after big business.) These may all be valid responses to fire at a question about inflation and wage increases, but Biden and his language are at cross-purposes; his arrows don’t fly true.

Trump, like Biden, is attracted to verbal shortcuts, but he slings out his buzzwords with a salesman’s flair. His conviction is such that even the less snappy ones threaten to catch on, as when he reassured voters, in 2src2src, that “we’ll always protect people with preëxisting,” referring, presumably, to his plan for health care and whether it would cover those with preëxisting conditions.

Earlier in the spring, Time published the lightly edited transcripts of two interviews that its reporters had conducted with the Presidential candidates. The texts revealed that Trump and Biden use certain words and constructions—“in terms of,” “look at,” “what we’ve done,” “what’s happening,” “what’s going on”—as crutches. Both favor vaguely defined pronouns, like “it” or “they.” And they both rely on syntactic repetition and anaphora to build an illusion of fluency and ironclad logic. Trump, in particular, is a master of crescendoing implication; he evokes diffuse, miasmatic evils that elude description but exist at every turn. “Look at what happened in Afghanistan,” he insisted in the Time transcript. “Look at what happened throughout the world. Look at what happened with him allowing Russia to do that with Ukraine. That would have never happened with me, and it didn’t happen.”

As painful as all this is to read, it’s important to note that Trump’s and Biden’s brands of nonsense diverge in illuminating ways. Biden has a much harder job than Trump does. He seeks to impose order; to create meaning and a sense of shared purpose; and to assuage Americans’ anxiety. If he proves hard to follow, it’s in part because he must communicate a complicated reality, a task that does not lend itself to easily packaged sound bites. He’s wrestling with language, attempting to bring it into line with the nuances of policy and governance.

Trump, meanwhile, is uninhibited, chaotic, and unconstrained by fact. He’s more at ease in oratory, riding its rhythms and luxuriating in its theatre, coining catchphrases and buttoning up paragraphs with a quip. A disorganized thinker with the gift of gab, he has mastered a certain kind of surreal clarity. During one of the 2src2src debates, Biden observed that “people want to be safe.” Trump replied, absurdly from one perspective, perfectly legibly from another, “I’m the one that brought back football! By the way, I brought back Big Ten football. It was me, and I’m very happy to do it.”

Over the years, the portrait of Biden that has emerged through his interviews, debates, and speeches is of an agile thinker and a clumsy talker. As his goofy Uncle Joe persona suggests, he’s always wandered down conversational culs-de-sac and swapped out key nouns. (Recall “Barack America.”) He’s long relied on discourse markers (“look,” “here’s the deal,” “not a joke”) to connect to audiences and to project folksiness and authenticity. His rhetoric-to-substance quotient has always been high. (When his Time interviewer asked him what peace would look like in Ukraine, he responded, “Peace looks like making sure Russia never, never, never, never occupies Ukraine. That’s what peace looks like.”) But, when Biden opens his mouth, he generally has a plan. On the way from A to B, anecdotes may pop up, tenses may shift, connective tissue may fall out, but he fundamentally seems to know what he’s talking about. Consider one garbled answer from the Time document:

Interviewer: If you do win in November, Mr. President, with a mandate to continue your approach to foreign policy, what would your goals be in the second term?

Biden: To finish what I started in the first term. To continue to make sure that the European continent—I’ll tell you, I got a call from Kissinger about 1src days before he died. And he used the following comment. He said that not since Napoleon has Europe not looked over their shoulder at dread with what Europe—what Russia may do, until now. Until now, you can’t let that change.

Despite a few jarring moments—the abrupt flashback, the odd diction of “used the following comment,” switching “at” and “with,” replacing “Russia” with “Europe”—there’s an underlying logic. You can see through the rapids to the nugget of sense that Biden is panning for. And it’s a good, glinting find: more vivid than an abstract answer would have been, more personal, and more redolent of history’s grandeur. Biden is saying that Europe has spent a lot of modernity being anxious about Russia, from the time of the Napoleonic Wars all the way up to the fall of the Soviet Union. He is committing to upholding a status quo in which American leadership has freed Europe from fear.

Here’s another quote, uncorked by a question about whether China has been meddling in the election:

On its face, this is carnage; this is the gobbledygook that pours out when you impale yourself on your own point. You have the discourse marker “man,” another filler sentence (“Not a joke”), and then the repetition of “Think about it,” all of which implies someone stalling for time before resignedly launching himself to his death. But, in fact, Biden is invoking one of the most persuasive arguments he could make in this context. First, he links China’s alleged malfeasance to Trump’s bad character. Then he alludes to how the leader of France compared NATO during the Trump Presidency to a brain-dead patient. In other words, Biden is pointing out, Trump’s hostility toward his ostensible allies has so disturbed some of them that at least one has considered pulling the plug on a key part of our national security. This is a fervent, sticky, artful encapsulation of the election’s world stakes—or it would have been, if it were easier to understand.

One of the many asymmetries of the Presidential race is that uncertainty—the kind that innuendo-filled, ominous speechifying can generate, or that marble-mouthed, circuitous rambling can provoke—helps Trump and hurts Biden. When the Time interviewer asked Trump what he would do if he lost the 2src24 election, he projected a mobster’s menace, gesturing toward unnameable horrors while delicately avoiding unlovely details:

Well, I do think we’re gonna win. We’re way ahead. I don’t think they’ll be able to do the things that they did the last time, which were horrible. Absolutely horrible. So many, so many different things they did, which were in total violation of what was supposed to be happening. And you know that and everybody knows that. We can recite them, go down a list that would be an arm’s long. But I don’t think we’re going to have that. I think we’re going to win. And if we don’t win, you know, it depends.

Poring over the two men’s clips and transcripts can feel like banging your head against the hermeneutic circle: the only way to really comprehend what either candidate is saying is, one suspects, to already know exactly what he is trying to say. Obviously, this perverts language as a tool of communication and reshapes it into a vehicle for tribalism. Rather than bridging our differences, a speech becomes a flood of shibboleths dividing the in-crowd from everyone else.

Trump and Biden are running for President in an era of infinite expressivity, a time in which words themselves are cheap, sluicing around the Internet, dribbling from humans as well as bots and A.I. programs: words of uncertain truth-value, words that sometimes don’t even make sense. There are people who, facing this predicament, keep trying to talk to one another. Other people profit from the confusion. One of the values at stake in the 2src24 election is intelligibility: can the country remain intelligible to itself and to the rest of the world? The President, of course, will play a huge role in answering that question. ♦

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