Opinion: Trump’s reality distortion machine is in overdrive for his debate with Biden

President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden
President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden meet in the first presidential debate Tuesday evening in Cleveland.
(Associated Press)

For months, President Trump has tried to persuade the public that former Vice President Joe Biden is a doddering old man rapidly losing his cognitive abilities. But on Tuesday night, the public will have its first chance to see these two septuagenarians side by side and hear how the strikingly inarticulate incumbent’s mangled prose compares with that of his challenger, who, while gaffe prone, can be a model of coherence compared with Trump.

Perhaps that’s why the Trump team has worked so hard to plant the suggestion that what viewers see from Biden on the debate stage in Cleveland isn’t the real “Sleepy Joe.”

The effort started a few weeks ago with Trump suggesting that Biden used performance-enhancing drugs to help him do better in a one-on-one debate with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) than he’d done in previous debates with multiple Democratic candidates. (This wild and unsupported accusation came during an interview with Fox News, so naturally it was treated as credible.) This eventually evolved into Trump demanding that Biden take a drug test before Tuesday’s debate, which drew a response from Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s communications director, that should be preserved in amber for future generations to admire: “If the president thinks his best case is made in urine he can have at it.”

It’s worth noting that Trump made the same accusation four years ago about Hillary Clinton. Evidently, Trump keeps a smear playbook.


On Tuesday, the Trump team took another stab at it, demanding that the candidates be inspected by a third party for hidden earpieces. Trump’s campaign said Biden refused; Biden’s campaign said it’s nonsense because Biden doesn’t wear an earpiece.

In case it’s not blindingly obvious, the message from the Trump campaign is that Biden can’t be competent on stage without boosting his acuity with pharmaceuticals or someone surreptitiously whispering talking points into his ear. This goes hand in hand with the argument that Biden is a Trojan horse candidate, a marionette controlled by the Democratic Party’s left wing.

Never mind the moderate Democratic record and bipartisan-oriented persona Biden established in eight years as vice president and three and a half decades in the U.S. Senate before that. In Trump’s telling, Biden is a shell of a man easily manipulated by the very people Biden ran against in the Democratic primary.

No one should be surprised by any of this. Trump, a former reality-TV star, is the reality-denying president, a man who’s averaged more than 15 false or misleading statements per day since he took office, by the Washington Post’s count. He does not want to be judged for who he is and what he’s actually done, nor does he want Biden to be judged that way.

The irony here is that Trump could have kept quiet and let Biden trip himself up, as Biden did in both of his previous runs for the White House. Instead, the president’s tweets about his supposedly addled and lifeless opponent lowered the public’s expectations too far, and Biden was set to exceed them easily. Hence the need to go further, to persuade people not to believe Biden is capable of performing competently even if they watch him, in fact, perform competently.

Tune in Tuesday evening and judge for yourself. Maybe Biden will look and sound unfit. Maybe Trump will. In this case, no matter what the Trump campaign says, seeing is believing.