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‘Feeble, desperate, mentally unfit’: Biden changes tack to mock Trump

With November set to be one of the most consequential elections in US history, it would be understandable if Donald Trump and Joe Biden reached for soaring, lofty rhetoric: if they attempted to match the high-minded ideals of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the nation’s founding fathers.

American voters, and the country’s political class, are long used to Trump’s insult-laden and often crude rhetoric. “Everything Joe Biden touches turns to shit,” Trump said in Georgia earlier this month, during a rally at which he also also mocked Biden’s stutter.

But recently Biden and his campaign team appear to have decided to fight fire with fire, after previously seeking to stay above the fray. It’s a shift that seems to accept that Trump has moved the standards of US politics and that it’s more effective to embrace that notion than remain out of the fight.

Related: ‘Quite the accomplishment’: Joe Biden pokes fun at Trump’s alleged golf wins

But it also probably reflects the unique threat that Trump’s bid to return to the White House for a second term represents to American democracy and that the time to sugarcoat the fight against that is long past. For many, Biden and his team’s insults aren’t just political hardball, they also smack of the truth.

In recent months, Biden has dubbed Trump “mentally unfit”, while this week his campaign declared that the US “deserves better than a feeble, confused, and tired Donald Trump”.

The president’s campaign has dubbed Trump “weak and desperate – both as a man and a candidate for president”. They’ve also taken to calling Trump, who says he is a multibillionaire but was recently unable to pay a court-ordered $454m bond, “Broke Don”.

It’s a remarkable shift for Biden, who less than a month ago raised eyebrows for only referring to Trump as “my predecessor” during his State of the Union speech.

Marjorie Hershey, professor emeritus of political science at Indiana University Bloomington, suggested to the Guardian Biden’s reason for this shift was “very straightforward.

“What he was doing before obviously wasn’t working. Typically, we all learn from bad experience and Biden has been behind in the polls to a candidate who is quite frankly hated by almost half of the American electorate,” she said.

“I think that Biden was under considerable pressure from his advisers, from activists, to do something different.”

Notably, polling this week showed Biden gaining on Trump in six key states – after his supporters previously had a wake-up call when the incumbent reported dismal numbers.

So far, Biden seems to be fully embracing his new persona. On Wednesday, the president, not known for his comic timing, even cracked a joke at his rival’s expense.

“Just the other day, this defeated-looking man came up to me and said: ‘Mr President, I need your help. I’m in crushing debt. I’m completely wiped out,’” Biden chortled.

“I said, ‘Sorry, Donald, I can’t help you.’”

While negative campaigning is not new, Trump took the practice to a new level almost from the moment he announced his run for president in June 2015. At the time, he claimed his rivals for the presidential nomination had “sweated like dogs” during their own campaign events, and said Mexico was sending “rapists” into the US.

With Trump having spent the last four years peppering Biden with insults, it seems Biden and his team have decided they need to respond in kind.

“We’ve learned that ignoring negative campaigning doesn’t work well,” Hershey said.

“People are more likely to remember negative charges than positive statements. People are more likely to give negative statements greater weight than they do positive statements.

“And so trying to take the high road and create a contrast between yourself and a negative opponent by not responding simply doesn’t work.”

With Biden in the political ring throwing verbal punches back at Trump, he has hewn closer to the “Dark Brandon” meme that is popular among some of his supporters. That concept, which frequently sees Biden depicted with red laser eyes, imagines Biden as a sort of edgy hero or even antihero – the kind of person who wouldn’t think twice about sarcastically congratulating an opponent on a golf tournament win.

If we rewind back to the 1980s, there were plenty of negative, and nasty, political campaigns afoot. The New York Times reported from the 1982 Tennessee Senate race that the Republican candidate Robin Beard hired an actor to dress up as Fidel Castro in an attempt to paint his opponent as soft on Cuban communism – but there is hard evidence that Trump dragged things to a new low.

According to a study published in 2023, “the frequency of negative emotion words” used by American politicians “suddenly and lastingly increased” when Trump entered the 2016 presidential race.

Researchers analyzed quotations from politicians from millions of news articles, and found that the use of negative language by politicians had begun to decrease during Barack Obama’s presidency.

“Then in June 2015, precisely the month when Trump started his campaign, there was a massive jump in negativity,” said Robert West, a professor in the school of computer and communication sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and one of the co-authors of the study.

It wasn’t just Trump’s own language that accounted for the increase. When West and his colleagues removed all Trump quotations from the data, they found that the amount of negative language had still gone up: people had begun to copy Trump’s tone, just as Biden appears to have done.

“It’s very sad that the other side is now starting to play the same game. This looks like we’ve lost as a society, because everyone plays that game now,” West said.

For now, it is hard to tell whether Biden cracking jokes about Trump will be a winning strategy. There is evidence, however, that Republican and Democratic voters increasingly view members of the opposing party with contempt.

In 2022, Pew Research found that 72% of Republicans consider Democrats to be “more immoral” than the average American, compared with just 47% who felt that way in 2016 (63% of Democrats thought Republicans were more immoral, up from 35% in 2016). In this climate, perhaps there is a real appetite among Biden supporters for him to swing for Trump’s kneecaps.

While some say a negative campaigning strategy is effective, others point out – like Stephen Craig, a political science professor at the University of Florida who has studied political campaigns – that is not always the case.

“There is a humongous amount of literature testing the effectiveness of negative ads, and negativity in other media as well – whether its speeches, radio or mail – and the bottom line is sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” Craig said.

“And no one can tell in advance when something is going to work and when it won’t.”

In the modern era, it is only Trump who has fully embraced mockery and insults as presidential campaigning, although during the 1988 presidential election George HW Bush’s team got plenty of mileage from making fun of Michael Dukakis, his opponent, for trying to look tough in a military tank.

But going back in time, it turns out the founding fathers weren’t really all that polite. The 1796 presidential election, in which John Adams defeated Thomas Jefferson, saw Adams’s camp claim Jefferson would promote prostitution and incest, and suggest that Jefferson had an affair with an enslaved woman.

Jefferson’s backers, meanwhile, claimed Adams was a hermaphrodite, and dubbed Adams, who they said was overweight, “His Rotundity”.

Neither Biden nor Trump have gone quite that low yet – although there are still seven months to go until election day.

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