When Joe Biden debates President Trump on Tuesday, he will have to figure out how to parry with an opponent who habitually lies and doesn’t play by the rules.
As a psychiatrist, I’d like to offer Mr. Biden some advice: Don’t waste your time fact-checking the president. If you attempt to counter every falsehood or distortion that Mr. Trump serves up, you will cede control of the debate. And, by trying to correct him, you will paradoxically strengthen the misinformation rather than undermine it. (Research shows that trying to correct a falsehood with truth can backfire by reinforcing the original lie. )
Instead, Mr. Biden should use more powerful weapons that will put Mr. Trump on the defensive — and also tell the audience that the president is a dishonest narrator.
The first weapon maybe the most effective: humor and ridicule. A derisive joke can defuse tense and outrageous situations. In 2007, for example, protesters dressed as clowns confronted a “white power” march in Charlotte, N.C., holding signs that read “wife power” and throwing white flour in the air. It made the white nationalists look ridiculous and avoided a violent confrontation, which would have served the interests of the racists.
Now, imagine a different kind of high-stakes situation — the presidential debate. Mr. Trump, faced with a pandemic and an economic downturn, tells Americans what a great job he’s done. In response, Mr. Biden should smile and say with a bit of laugh: “And just where have you been living? South Korea? Or Fiji? You cannot be in the United States — except maybe on the golf course. We’ve got about 4 percent of the world’s population and 21 percent of all Covid deaths and the highest unemployment since the Great Depression! You must be living on another planet!”
The retort mocks the president as weak and unaccomplished, which will rattle him. He is apparently so fearful of being the target of a joke that — unlike any president before him — he has skipped the last three roasts at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
Ridicule could also neutralize one of Mr. Trump’s favorite racist tropes: that America is being overtaken by violent thugs. So what should Mr. Biden do when the president starts in? He should say something like, “This is like the bad joke about the arsonist who shows up at the bonfire and started posing as a fireman! The guy who calls himself a stable genius seems to have forgotten that he’s been president during all this violence and that he’s been the instigator in chief with his racist rhetoric. The country’s biggest bully thinks he can fool you by playing sheriff.”
To see why humor could be so effective in dealing with Mr. Trump, you have to understand why he lies. People don’t tell the truth for many reasons, but the president’s lies generally fall into two categories. The first are boastful and self-aggrandizing claims, such as “Only I can fix it. ” This swagger betrays a fragile self-esteem, and while outlandish and amusing, the lies are typically harmless.
The second type of lie aims to deceive others in pursuit of a specific goal. For example, we now know, from a taped interview with Bob Woodward, that Mr. Trump knew in February that the coronavirus was deadly and transmissible by air, but he lied to the public, playing down its severity and discouraging the use of masks — a calculated deception that cost untold lives.
This kind of lie is emblematic of individuals with antisocial traits who have a deficit in moral conscience. But if they also have strong narcissistic traits, they are exquisitely sensitive to criticism and especially to ridicule. Derisive humor threatens to expose them for the loser they secretly believe they are.
Some of the president’s lies are not served by humor; Mr. Biden will have to confront them head-on, like the president’s disastrous handling of the pandemic. In this case, the best strategy would be to say: “The fact is that more than 200,000 American have died — even if the president falsely suggests that the number is lower. But let’s focus on the grim truth: More than 200,000 of our loved ones died from coronavirus, many because of the president’s deception.”
The cognitive scientist George Lakoff, who studies propaganda, calls this a “truth sandwich” — a lie gets sandwiched between true statements. Research shows it effectively corrects a falsehood, because people tend to remember the beginning and end of a statement, rather than what’s in the middle.
Mr. Trump’s resistance to masks is also a target for a derisive truth sandwich: “Wearing a mask is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of coronavirus. But you sure wouldn’t know it from the president, who has run around in public without one and mocks people like me who wear them. Is it vanity or that he just doesn’t believe in science? I don’t know, but the science is undisputed: wearing masks saves lives.”
Mr. Biden will have another advantage during the debate: President Trump will not have a live audience to excite him and satisfy his insatiable need for approval and attention, which means he will be even more vulnerable to a takedown. True, no one will be there to laugh at Mr. Biden’s jokes, but it doesn’t matter because the goal is serious: to expose the truth and unnerve Mr. Trump by getting under his skin.
Richard A. Friedman is a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, and a contributing opinion writer.
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