WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump turned insulting big-name rivals and celebrities into a form of modern political art. His top Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, has refined it into a post-modern name-calling style exhibited in limited fashion to voters who confront him with cheap shots.
"Don't be such a horse's ass," Biden scolded a worker at an auto plant in Detroit on Tuesday as Michigan voters went to the polls.
The worker had falsely asserted that Biden wants to "end our Second Amendment right" to own guns. Biden, the author of a decadelong 1994 ban on certain semi-automatic weapons, has proposed new gun control measures but not a repeal of the Second Amendment — which as president he would have no formal role in adopting.
But the heated exchange, in which Biden threatened to slap the man and said he was "full of s---," was just the latest example of a tough-talk tactic the former vice president has deployed repeatedly to push back on critics on the campaign trail. While allies of Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders say the aggressive approach will backfire politically, many Democrats and some anti-Trump Republicans like the unusually muscular response.
They see a candidate who has risen in the polls and in early state primaries by demonstrating his resilience to Democratic voters and one who is telegraphing to the broader electorate that he's ready to go toe-to-toe with the bombastic Trump if he wins his party's nomination.
"Kind of amazing that anybody thinks this video makes Biden look anything other than terrific," David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush who supports Biden, wrote on Twitter. "He shushes the aide who wants to lead him away — and then engages a hostile critic face to face, fact to fact. Impressive."
Andrew Bates, a spokesman for the Biden campaign, tweeted that his team would pay Trump's operation to "keep promoting" a video of the exchange and then re-tweeted the National Rifle Association's tweet of the footage.
Biden's tack is unorthodox, to say the least, but Trump ushered in an era of politics that has scrambled many of the old rules. Democrats have struggled to find the tone and the temperament to counter a president who has taken his position in the metaphorical bully pulpit literally, and Biden's camp says he is offering new means for his party to swat down reams of fiction from Trump and the political right.
"Democrats want someone who will stand up for their principles," Bates told NBC News.
"Gun reform is something he's been extremely serious about for decades and this epidemic of mass shootings is intolerable," he said. "If we're going to take on Donald Trump and win — and gain more down-ballot victories across the country — we have to own our convictions and fight back against disinformation that right-wing demagogues like Donald Trump are hoping Americans will buy."
In Iowa in January, Biden reacted strongly when a man accused him of sending his son Hunter to work in Ukraine for the purpose of "selling access to the president" — a claim so absurd that not even Biden's most conspiracy-theory-minded political opponents have made it.
"You’re a damn liar, man,” Biden said. He challenged the man to take an IQ test and to do push-ups with him.
At times, though, Biden's penchant for snapping back has been less clearly directed at someone attacking him with false information.
In New Hampshire last month, Biden called a woman a "lying, dog-faced pony soldier" after she asked whether he could win the nomination following his poor performance in the Iowa caucuses and then told him she had caucused before. His campaign played down the line, which comes from a John Wayne movie, as a joke.
Trump's campaign and the conservative media echo chamber jumped on Biden on Tuesday, repeating the false claim that Biden is trying to repeal the Second Amendment and expressing outrage at his use of profanity.
Trump himself has repeatedly used profanity on the campaign trail and in office. He called Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a fellow Republican, a "p----" in 2016, he has branded various Democratic politicians with nicknames that are ethnically insensitive or made fun of their intelligence or physical features, and he often mocks or suggests that violence might be done to protesters at his rallies.
But it wasn't just the Trump campaign that said it found Biden's interaction with the Michigan worker uncouth. Faiz Shakir, who manages Sanders' campaign, tweeted out video of the moment. The first time, he subtweeted the Republican National Committee's rapid response director before deleting that version and retweeted another version.
Conservatives were split on whether to suggest Biden had an angry moment or whether he was being dishonest with the voter.
Mark Levin, the conservative radio host, said Biden "loses it again," while Dana Loesch, a former spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association, said Biden had admitted "the exact thing about gun confiscation that the worker questioning him described," adding that "Biden called the worker a liar, blamed Trump and cussed at him in response."
But in the interview Loesch promoted, Biden said he was going after assault weapons specifically and explained why he believes that the Second Amendment does not prevent the government from enacting laws that restrict the ownership of certain firearms — like currently banned machine guns — as he told the worker in Detroit.
Ultimately, voters will decide whether they think Biden's right to hit back when he thinks he's being unfairly attacked — whether it's by Trump or a guy with a hard hat. But as he rides a wave of momentum in the Democratic primary — with anti-Trump Republicans lining up behind him and Sanders' team finding common cause with Trump — the costs are low and the rewards are high in the short term.