The best moment of Tuesday’s debate was also the least scripted. Fed up by President Trump’s constant interruptions only 18 minutes in, former vice president Joe Biden turned to him, exasperated, and said, “Will you shut up, man?”

It didn’t work; Trump kept interrupting and talking over Biden the rest of the night. But the Democrat spoke for every viewer who wanted to see a rational exchange of ideas and policy proposals and instead got two elderly men engaged in a verbal slap-fight.

It was a frustrated plea that only a man could have made. Hillary Clinton, who four years ago was also treated to interruptions, contempt and rank disrespect from Trump in three debates, surely would have loved to tell him to stuff it. (When I suggested that on Twitter, Clinton responded, “You have no idea.”) But if she had done so, the reaction probably would have been much less generous — feminists would have cheered, but everyone else would have tarred her as angry, irritable and oversensitive. Such an uncivil response would have been taken as confirmation of her entitlement and unlikability, or as evidence of the kind of thin skin that people insist makes a woman unsuitable for the presidency.

It’s also the only way of dealing with a man like Trump.

There’s no tried-and-true way to best a bully. Ignoring constant aggression certainly doesn’t work; trying to bully back is a losing game if you’re not as constitutionally cruel, egotistical and narcissistic as your tormentor. Four years ago, Clinton tried all manner of response to Trump: ignoring him, replying with cool confidence, calling out his bad behavior, redirecting the debate to the issues. None of it worked. He menaced her. He insulted her. He cut her off.

Post Opinions columnists watched the chaotic first debate between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden so that you didn't have to. (The Washington Post)

Biden, by virtue of being a White man, has more leeway in his interactions with his adversary and flexibility in what tactics he deploys. He, too, tried to ignore Trump’s interruptions; he, too, tried to be calm and collected even while the president’s raving made it nearly impossible for him to get a word in. But when it became clear that the usual ways of managing erratic opponents wouldn’t suffice, he had the option of just going Scranton schoolyard.

It’s not the first time Biden’s gender has given him more options for fighting back or criticizing the president. In 2018, Biden was speaking at a rally against sexual violence, and he recalled the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump saying that he grabs women by the genitals. “If we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him,” Biden said. Trump responded with characteristic gracelessness and bluster — criticizing Biden for allegedly threatening him while asserting that he would actually triumph if the two came to blows. He tweeted, “Crazy Joe Biden is trying to act like a tough guy. Actually, he is weak, both mentally and physically, and yet he threatens me, for the second time, with physical assault. He doesn’t know me, but he would go down fast and hard, crying all the way. Don’t threaten people Joe!”

It’s not just the president whom Biden has more leeway to be confrontational with. Earlier this year, Biden got into it with a construction worker on a campaign stop; the man was combative, asserting that Biden wanted to infringe upon his Second Amendment rights and take away his guns. Biden looked him in the eye and said, “You’re full of s---.” When someone tried to step in, Biden told them to “shush” before continuing, calmly, to explain that he supports Second Amendment rights and owns guns himself but doesn’t believe those rights are unlimited. The conversation quickly devolved into a shouting match. Later, Biden called the man a “horse’s ass.”

It’s tough to picture a female politician participating in any of these exchanges. There is no universe in which Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could say the same thing to a working-class man and be lauded for her authenticity. Elizabeth Warren could not assert that she would have beaten Trump up in high school and be praised for showing needed passion. The one card women can pull is that of disapproving mother — a tactic at times wielded effectively, as when Nancy Pelosi noted that “I'm a mother of five, grandmother of nine; I know a temper tantrum when I see one,” but one that also comes with the risk of being cast as the haranguing schoolmarm.

Women in politics, in other words, are hemmed in (as are politicians of color — a Black man talking about beating up an opponent also seems unlikely to play well). The threat of being seen as angry or crazy means female politicians have to show practiced calm and keep themselves from having normal human reactions to outrageous acts — and then risk being questioned as inauthentic and cold for not reacting.

This isn’t to say that politics would be better if more women told their opponents to shut up, mused about getting into high school fistfights and cursed at constituents. But Trump has behaved with such cruelty, maliciousness and entitlement that the usual rules of engagement long ago ceased to apply. He cares about power, about dominating any perceived opponent, and little else. When there’s no model for a female version of dominance politics but many cultural reference points for men butting heads like rams in the Rockies, male candidates simply have more options for responding to Trump. They can take the high road, or they can duke it out and try to shut him down.

Of course, Trump also has startlingly little of value to say, which is why Biden’s “shut up” didn’t feel so out of bounds. While the point of a presidential debate is ostensibly to present each candidate’s case for America, Trump seems incapable of even grasping what his own administration’s policies are. On Tuesday night, he claimed he had a health-care plan; in reality, his administration has not presented one, even with four years to come up with something. He was mealy-mouthed on climate change, saying “a lot of things” caused it and conceding that human behavior may be one of them, and then pivoting to claim that “we are planting a billion trees.” (He is not.) When asked to condemn armed and violent, mostly male reactionary groups, he did not, instead telling them to “stand back and stand by.” When it wasn’t Trump’s turn to talk, his mouth was still moving; he repeatedly drowned Biden out, making it impossible for the former vice president to lay out his platform and policy vision. That’s why hearing Biden tell Trump to can it was so cathartic.

But it was also complicated for those of us who want more women in politics and positions of power: Men are still seen as the people who have a greater right to speak and as the arbiters of who else gets to talk. The stereotype of the chatty woman is pervasive, even though research shows that in professional settings and public forums, women speak less and often find that their ideas are ignored — until they’re adopted by a man, who then gets credit for them. Men who talk over women are normal; a woman who tells a man to shut up is hostile.

Tuesday’s debate was not a discussion, an exchange of ideas, or even an argument. It was a disgrace. The only solution would have been for Trump to do exactly what Biden demanded: to shut up. Too bad women can’t demand the same.