In the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle, Muhammad Ali matched up against world heavyweight champion George Foreman. Foreman was favored due to his punching power, and observers thought Ali was finished when he was pushed back on the ropes. But that fell right into Ali’s hands. Ali held onto the ropes, allowing the force of the blows he received from Foreman to be absorbed by the ropes’ elasticity rather than his body.
Such was the hallmark of the rope-a-dope: instead of moving around the ring, a boxer instead makes his opponent lose all steam as they unload non-injuring punches, or make them miss entirely. And then when they’re tired, deliver the winning blows for a knockout victory.
In training, Ali toughened his constitution. His trainer told him to be like a “sort of dope on the ropes, letting Foreman swing away” but hit “nothing but air.” That would allow Ali to wait for his chance while Foreman expended all his energy throwing wild punches. Then, as his opponent was fatigued and lacking stamina, Ali took advantage and won the match.
This was a strategy that worked in favor of president-elect Joe Biden. He was never in the bunker as a coward after all. He was simply lying in wait for Trump to implode.
A classic trump maneuver is to belittle someone by using a nickname. Elizabeth Warren was called Pocahantas, there was Crazy Bernie, and called Congressman Adam Schiff “Little Pencil Neck.” And of course, “Sleepy Joe.”
But Biden never countered by stooping so low. There was something both old-fashioned and elevated in the way he dismantled his opponent. During the first debate, he called Trump a clown. This was the type of cut down you’d expect from your uncle. Not presidential, you say? Give me a break. It’s positively high brow when compared with “grab ’em by the genitals.”
During the third debate, Biden sarcastically referred to Trump as Abraham Lincoln based upon the President’s earlier claims that he had done more for Black people than any president. Like George Foreman, this strategy totally confused Trump, and he was near apoplectic in his response.
Trump continued to personally attack his opponent during the campaign — that Biden would hurt God and eliminate schools, graduations, weddings, and Christmas. Oh, and Biden will be the cause of “countless suicides” and “drug overdose.”
Biden responded, but not with the same vitriol. In contrast, during Biden’s final campaign rallies, he declared that he would hire Dr. Anthony Fauci, and that “Trump’s gonna start paying some taxes.”
In September, after calling Biden “Sleepy Joe” for most of the campaign, Trump tried a new name on for size — “Basement Biden” — and challenged him to get “out of his basement.” But Biden had been following CDC guidelines to shelter. Rather than speak from a podium at large rallies, Biden chose to virtual deliver fireside chats from his basement. Some might have assumed the lowered visibility would hurt his chances, but Biden was still not goaded to step into the limelight.
Even in the summer, Biden would not be egged on. “I’m anxious to go out and campaign,” he said to George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America. “I enjoy interfacing with people. I’m not trying to avoid it, but I’m trying to set an example as to how we should proceed.”
In contrast, Trump held multiple rallies and mask-free parties. Some feared they were super-spreader events. In Refinery 29, Sarah Midkiff wrote that Trump’s new nickname for Biden could backfire for this simple reason: to “remind people that Biden is staying home when everyone should be staying home is actually the least insulting thing he could say.”
Keep Yappin, Man
During the first debate, Biden mostly maintained his calm and reserve as Trump petulantly blustered. In 90 minutes, Trump interrupted Biden and debate moderator Chris Wallace at least 128 times. During the final debate in Nashville, Trump interrupted twice as many times as Biden.
Interrupting, as a method of deflection, has long been a Trump tactic. But for the debates, he was going for the jugular and wanted to trade heavily on his charges that Biden was not “playing with a full deck.” In 2019 Trump asked, “Does anybody really believe he is mentally fit to be president?”
During the first debate, by changing topics frequently, bullying, and interrupting, Trump hoped to trip up Biden. A debate advisor told the Washington Post that Trump “has certainly been coached to be on offense, and he wants to make Biden stutter and stammer.” This would play into the old senile man trope but would not have held credible water. That’s because Biden has been open about his lifelong struggle to overcome a severe childhood stutter.
As Trump leaned in to assault Biden, the vice-president did not turn to meet his gaze. Instead, he looked directly at the camera and delivered impassioned dialogues with the audience at home.
And then Biden sat back as Trump beat on Trump. By failing to condemn white supremacists, and specifically the Proud Boys. And with a nonsensical rebuttal of his refusal to pay taxes or release any tax returns. That day, the New York Times broke the story about Trump’s tax returns. That for several years he paid nothing in income tax and just $750 in 2016 and 2017. Trump’s paltry defense was that Biden should have done something to close the tax loopholes while he was in the Senate for 25 years because a thief isn’t at fault if the banks’ vaults aren’t hardened.
Biden countered with, “You’re the worst president America has ever had.” Mic drop.
To be clear, it takes a strong chin and fortitude to pull off a rope-a-dope. It is a dangerous and delicate strategy because the boxer will get hit. Not all have Ali’s lightning reflexes to dodge 21 punches in 10 seconds, as he did in a bout later in his career. But Biden demonstrated grit, forcefully pushing back against baseless and debunked accusations about his son during the third debate. And though he could have, he didn’t fire back with ammunition against Trump’s brood.
The earlier moments of the final debate demonstrate how Trump beat himself, and how Biden subsequently went high for the win. Biden charged that Trump “take[s] no responsibility” for the fallout attributed to the lack of robust pandemic response.
Trump’s literal contradictory response? “Excuse me. I take full responsibility. It’s not my fault that it came here. It’s China’s fault.”
He then tried to spin the argument by falsely claiming that Biden had attacked him for the pandemic response. Attempting to egg Biden on further, Donald interrupted, “He thought I shouldn’t have closed the border.” This salvo triggered an offer from moderator Kristen Welker to continue. “Do you want to respond to that?” she asked.
After taking a quick beat, Biden leaned in and coolly said, “No.”
He had enough of the banter. Far from sleepy, he was the smartest guy in the ring.
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