The most famous story about modern presidential campaigning now has a quaint old-world tone. It’s about the showdown between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in the first debate of their 1960 campaign, which was also the very first nationally televised general-election debate in the United States.
The story is that Kennedy looked great, which is true, and Nixon looked terrible, which is also true—and that this visual difference had an unexpected electoral effect. As Theodore H. White described it in his hugely influential book The Making of the President 1960, which has set the model for campaign coverage ever since, “sample surveys” after the debate found that people who had only heard Kennedy and Nixon talking, over the radio, thought that the debate had been a tie. But those who saw the two men on television were much more likely to think that Kennedy—handsome, tanned, non-sweaty, poised—had won.
Historians who have followed up on this story haven’t found data to back up White’s sight-versus-sound discovery. But from a modern perspective, the only surprising thing about his findings is that they came as a surprise. Today’s electorate has decades of televised politics behind it, from which one assumption is that of course images, and their emotional power, usually matter more than words and whatever logic they might try to convey.
The record of presidential debates since 1960 generally conforms to White’s maxim. In only a minority of cases have politicians gained or lost ground based on what they said, rather than how they looked while saying it. Gerald Ford is the most obvious example. In his second debate against Jimmy Carter in 1976, when Ford was fighting to hold on to the presidency he had assumed after Richard Nixon resigned, Ford said that Eastern Europe was not under the Soviet Union’s domination. The questioner threw him a lifeline, with an incredulous “Did I hear that right??” follow-up. But Ford ignored the signal and gave a longer, more definitive statement of the same view.
Despite his stumblebum image, Ford, a Yale Law School graduate, was no dummy, and what he meant made sense. He was trying to say that the indomitable spirit of the Poles could never be crushed, and that the United States would never concede the status of Eastern European countries like Poland as mere Soviet satellites. So through the rest of the debate, while on camera before tens of millions of viewers, Ford betrayed no awareness that anything had gone wrong. (I was on Carter’s campaign staff then, and was there.) It was only afterward that he learned this was a “gaffe,” one that would dog him for the rest of his campaign and even show up in his obituaries.
That was an exception. The rule is that the way candidates react, immediately and usually involuntarily, while caught by the camera, dominates impressions of who has “won” or “lost” an encounter. This is why the most accurate way to predict reaction to a debate is to watch it with the sound turned off.
When Lloyd Bentsen, as Michael Dukakis’s running mate in 1988, dressed down the undergrad-looking Dan Quayle with “You’re no Jack Kennedy!” in their vice-presidential debate, Quayle stood like a scolded child, which became a dominant image of him in the campaign. The Bush-Quayle ticket went on to win in a landslide, but the campaign lastingly damaged Quayle’s reputation. Eight years before that, when challenger Ronald Reagan brushed off incumbent President Jimmy Carter with “There you go again!,” the specific words didn’t matter as much as the picture of the easy, confident Reagan versus the purse-lipped, peeved-seeming Carter.
And on through the list of debate moments that were discussed at the time and remembered afterward. No one recalls what Al Gore said during his first debate against George W. Bush in 2000 (except perhaps that he would keep the Medicare and Social Security budgets in a “lockbox”); many people recall, and held against him, his ostentatious sighs. In the late summer of 2011, Governor Rick Perry of Texas led Mitt Romney and all other Republicans for the 2012 nomination. By late fall he had begun his descent, due largely to his brain-freeze moment in a debate when he was not able to name the third federal agency he wanted to eliminate. The problem wasn’t the momentary lapse, of the kind that can afflict anyone and is best laughed off. (A weary candidate Obama said near the end of the 2008 primary campaign that he had visited “all 57 states.”) Instead it was Perry’s own reaction; he looked and sounded like a man who was all too aware that he had just made an enormous mistake. In each of these cases, the anguish was compounded by the politician’s recognition that the slip confirmed a preexisting suspicion: for Quayle, that he was callow; for Perry, that he was slow-witted; for Gore, that he was a huffy teacher’s pet looking down on the slacker-student Bush.
Never has the dominance of the image over the word seemed more significant than this year, as the parties and the public prepare for the three general-election debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump that are scheduled to begin September 26 (as it happens, the anniversary of that first Kennedy-Nixon debate) and the one vice-presidential debate between Tim Kaine and Mike Pence, scheduled for October 4.
The word scheduled is necessary because of the element of the unforeseeable that Donald Trump has brought to this entire campaign cycle. The Commission on Presidential Debates, an independent organization that has run the general-election debates since 1988, ultimately relies on reputational rather than legal leverage to get candidates to appear. If one candidate were to back out on short notice—just hypothetically, let’s say Donald Trump—it could not force a normal debate to take place. In late July, Trump appeared to be setting the stage for not debating, or changing the terms of engagement. Just after the Democratic convention ended, he sent out a tweet saying, “As usual, Hillary & the Dems are trying to rig the debates so 2 are up against major NFL games. Same as last time w/ Bernie. Unacceptable!” At the Republican convention in Cleveland, the longtime Republican activist and current Trump ally Roger Stone told me that Trump would appear as planned and “debate circles around Hillary Clinton,” as he had with his opponents in the primaries. A month later, news reports said that the ousted founder of Fox News, Roger Ailes, would be helping Trump prepare for the debates. Obviously, everything about the Trump campaign has been improvisational, and he may recalculate until the last minute as to whether he has more to gain or lose by showing up.
Something roughly similar has happened before. In 1980, before the current debate system was set up and when the League of Women Voters was in charge, President Carter, as the incumbent, refused to appear at the first of two scheduled debates with Reagan, because the independent candidate, John Anderson, whose support had risen above 20 percent in some national polls, would be included as well. Reagan and Anderson went ahead with a two-person debate, without Carter. In late October, the parties agreed to a single head-to-head debate between Carter and Reagan, minus Anderson. Whether because of that night’s “There you go again!” or for other reasons, a race that had been close in the polls broke strongly in Reagan’s favor practically as soon as the debate was over, and a week later he went on to an easy win.
You can imagine debate-type events this fall with one, two, or even three participants, in combinations hard to predict until just ahead of time. The third participant, if there were one, would likely be the Libertarian candidate, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. The debate commission has set a threshold of 15 percent support in five national opinion polls for candidates to be included. If Donald Trump dropped out—perhaps because he’d said the system was “rigged” to get too few viewers, perhaps because he privately worried that the policy-intensive format was implicitly rigged to make him look bad, perhaps for both reasons or others—some version of the events would probably still go on. The universities that host the debates and the networks that broadcast them have already made huge investments to prepare. (Indeed, the planned first-debate host, Wright State University, near Dayton, Ohio, backed out in July because it felt unable to bear the escalating security costs. That debate was switched to Hofstra University, on Long Island.) Either Hillary Clinton would show up on her own, for questioning by the moderator, or she would be joined by Gary Johnson. The lineups for vice-presidential debates follow those for the presidential nominees, so if Johnson participated, presumably so would his vice-presidential running mate, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, against Tim Kaine and Mike Pence. In July, Weld told me that he was preparing as if he and Johnson would be in the debates.
That’s the realm of the unknown. Let’s assume Trump shows up, and consider what the extraordinary primary-debate cycle of the past year suggests about a Clinton-versus-Trump showdown, which could be the most watched event in U.S. TV history. In 1960, 36 percent of the population watched the first Kennedy-Nixon debate. The same percentage now would mean nearly 120 million viewers in the United States, plus countless more worldwide. For comparison, this would be slightly more than the audience for the most popular Super Bowl, and significantly more than the 95 million who watched the O. J. Simpson car chase in 1994 or the 106 million who watched the final episode of M*A*S*H in 1983.
These debates would be must-watch TV because they would be the most extreme contrast of personal, intellectual, and political styles in America’s democratic history. Right brain versus left brain; gut versus any portion of the brain at all; impulse versus calculation; id versus superego; and of course man versus woman. The two parties’ conventions this summer were stark contrasts in tone, stagecraft, and lineup of speakers. But they took place in different cities at different times. The first debate will be a matter-meets-antimatter conjunction at a single point. Live sports, from the Olympics to the Kentucky Derby, differ from other TV programming and compel live viewership because no one knows beforehand how things will turn out. The same is true of live presidential debates, above all any including Donald Trump.
Depending on what else is happening when the debates begin, they could prove to be consequential as well as riveting. Perhaps Donald Trump will fail in the one way that really matters in debates: by confirming, before people’s eyes, doubts they already had. In his case that might involve revealing an embarrassing gap in factual knowledge. His comment to George Stephanopoulos in late July that Russia was “not going to go into Ukraine, all right?” (two years after it already had) could have been devastating during a debate, when the audience is larger and the stakes are higher than in any given TV interview. Or it might involve a rash overstatement on a topic where minute shadings of presidential language can have enormous effect, such as his suggesting that he was not sure the U.S. should fulfill its until-now sacrosanct obligation to defend NATO allies even if they haven’t paid their dues, or to honor payments on the national debt. It might involve a bullying word or gesture toward Hillary Clinton or toward one of the demographic groups he has criticized. It could involve several of these in sequence, spewed out in a live version of one of Trump’s Twitter outbursts, which would reveal mainly that Hillary Clinton had fully gotten under his skin.
Viewers may get a sense that something like this is in store if Hillary Clinton has the relaxed and even jokey bearing that shows her (and for that matter, practically anyone) at her best. The main examples to date are the way she carried herself against Senator Bernie Sanders in most of their debates; her cool dismissal of questions at the congressional hearings on Benghazi last year; and her mockery of Trump as one of the “little men” you can “bait with a tweet” in her Democratic-convention speech. She might read Trump’s own words back at him verbatim, as she did in her convention speech—the harshest anti-Trump TV ads so far have mainly just been clips of him—showing rather than telling the audience that he should not be considered fit to govern. If all or most of this happens, and if the sound-off image is of a calm, confident Clinton and a fuming Trump, she will have won the debates and moved that much closer to winning the election.
But if Trump can seem easily rather than angrily in command, or if he can lure Clinton into joining him in an insult-for-insult exchange, or if she is beset by some new controversy for which she gives a hyper-legalistic rationalization, then the debates could be a turning point for Trump. As a two-term governor of California, Ronald Reagan was a vastly more experienced public figure than Donald Trump is now. Still, it took seeing him toe to toe with an incumbent president for many viewers to imagine him as commander in chief. A confident-seeming Trump might benefit in the same way, especially because the “expectations game” weighs so heavily in Trump’s favor. The stakes, the unpredictability, and the contrast are why we watch.
Video: Trump Vs. Clinton: When Polar Opposites Debate
I’ll be watching, and I should make clear that I am far from impartial about the outcome of the debates and this election. I believe that Donald Trump is by knowledge clownishly unprepared to be president and even less suited by temperament. As a voter, I hope that the effect of the debates, whether he participates or not, is to reduce his chance of victory.
But as a onetime presidential speechwriter, and as a chronicler of the debates in these pages every four years since Bush faced Gore in 2000, I have to respect what Trump has managed onstage so far, and take seriously what he might still do. Over the past few months I have been asking experts on intellectual and emotional persuasion how they explain Trump’s success, and asking politicians from both parties how they expect this fall’s debates to go.
“In many ways the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals,” Jane Goodall, the anthropologist, told me shortly before Trump won the GOP nomination. “In order to impress rivals, males seeking to rise in the dominance hierarchy perform spectacular displays: stamping, slapping the ground, dragging branches, throwing rocks. The more vigorous and imaginative the display, the faster the individual is likely to rise in the hierarchy, and the longer he is likely to maintain that position.”
In her book My Life With the Chimpanzees, Goodall told the story of “Mike,” a chimp who maintained his dominance by kicking a series of kerosene cans ahead of him as he moved down a road, creating confusion and noise that made his rivals flee and cower. She told me she would be thinking of Mike as she watched the upcoming debates.
“Vigorous and imaginative” displays on Trump’s part and steady error avoidance on Clinton’s are the stories of their progress through the primary-cycle debates. Clinton is her party’s nominee independent of anything that happened in the 10 Democratic debates and town halls, and with minimal effect from them on her financial, endorsement, and name-recognition advantages. Trump is his party’s nominee largely because of the Republicans’ 20-some debates, town halls, forums, and other live-television displays.
On the Democrats’ side, neither Clinton nor Bernie Sanders made a significant misstep, in word or bearing, through the debates. I asked former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who was onstage with Clinton and Sanders for the first five encounters, whether he’d seen Clinton make any significant mistakes. “No,” he said. “Dammit!” To round things out, when I asked O’Malley how he would be preparing to debate Trump if he’d won the nomination, he said, “I’d start by thinking of him as a monkey with a machine gun.” By that he meant an adversary who is all the more dangerous because you can’t predict which direction he’ll be facing when he pulls the trigger.
The most controversial aspect of the Democratic debates was not anyone’s performance in them but rather their scheduling. The Democrats’ debates started two months after the Republicans’, and two of the first three were on Saturday nights, as if intended to hold down viewership among people with other things to do. Clinton’s challengers complained that this was a scheme by the Democratic National Committee, then run by the embattled Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to limit the exposure the debates would give them and thus help Clinton run out the clock.
The moment most likely to be remembered from any of the Democratic debates came early in the first one, when Sanders answered a question about Clinton’s email practices by addressing her directly: “Let me say something that may not be great politics … The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!” “Me too! Me too!” she immediately said, with a genuine-looking smile and a big laugh. Sanders no doubt helped Clinton with this comment, and her reaction showed it. Despite his “not great politics” disclaimer, he probably helped himself too, in sustaining the message that the real focus of the campaign should be economic fairness, which is the theme he immediately switched to for the rest of his remarks.
Significantly, Clinton, unlike Trump, comes to this fall’s debates as a veteran of five one-on-one debates with Sanders (plus five in the 2008 election cycle against just Barack Obama after John Edwards dropped out, and three against Rick Lazio in her 2000 Senate race). Donald Trump, by contrast, has not been through even one head-to-head live debate. After the multiplayer scrum of the early Republican field, the smallest field he ever faced was Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio in Miami in the very last GOP debate. These are entirely different experiences: facing one person, with a moderator, versus being part of a crowd. With three or more contenders onstage, each participant is mainly fighting for airtime and looking for chances to get in planned zingers. Participants are talking over one another; the moderator can rarely pursue an extended line of follow-ups with any one speaker; and overall the dynamics are like that of a pundit panel on a cable-news talk show.
In a head-to-head debate, participants know they will get enough airtime. The question becomes how they use it. Example of the difference: In several of the GOP debates, Trump went into a kind of hibernation when the talk became too specific or policy-bound, letting John Kasich or Marco Rubio have the microphone. It didn’t matter, because he’d have a chance to come back with a one-liner—“We’re gonna win so much.” In debates like the ones this fall, it will be harder to answer some questions and ignore others. (One of the presidential debates will have a “town hall” format, with questions from the public. The other two will consist of six 15-minute blocks, each on a single topic.)
What Trump got from the crowded-stage debates was the perfect platform to display the kind of dominance Jane Goodall described. When he chose to be, he was always and easily the most interesting figure in view, and the only one with a background not in discussing policy or tailoring appeals to interest groups but in being a reality-TV star. His long years on The Apprentice, in the role of the omniscient, universally deferred to (“Mr. Trump thinks …”), and wisely decisive boss, were indispensable to his rise and established the persona he has played through the campaign.
“He mastered that art of having a conversation with you, through the camera,” Joel Silberman, a stage veteran who has worked as a performance coach for many Democratic politicians, told me. “It’s 13 years of being in people’s living rooms talking just to you—knowing when to smile, knowing when to move or be still.” TV-news executives understood that more people would watch if they had Trump on air than if they showed anything else, and essentially entered into an implicit bargain to promote him outside of the debates. The three flagship Sunday-interview shows on the broadcast networks—NBC’s Meet the Press, CBS’s Face the Nation, and ABC’s This Week—plus CNN’s State of the Union and some of the weekday shows frequently allowed Trump to do something that no other candidate was permitted to do even once: call in to the show. Before networks began resisting the practice this spring, ABC had accommodated Trump most often, with 11 phone‑ins; altogether, the Sunday shows interviewed Trump by phone 30 times, versus a total of zero for all the other candidates. The one exception, to its credit, was Fox News Sunday. Its host, Chris Wallace, said in an interview last year that he rejected the idea of “a phoner with a presidential candidate where they have all the control and you have none, where you can’t see them—they may have talking points in front of them.”
All the theatrics had a snowball effect. At the time of the first debate, Trump had less than 25 percent support among Republican voters, but in a 17-candidate field, that gave him the lead and thus the central position onstage. At 6 foot 2, he happened to be taller than all the other candidates except Jeb Bush, which gave him another reason to look down on them with disdain. And although Bush is more than an inch taller, he often held himself in a slump that convinced most viewers that Trump was looking down on him as well. In most of the debates, Trump also got more airtime than anyone else. In an 11-member debate in September, for instance, Trump spoke for nearly 19 minutes—three minutes longer than the next-closest, Jeb Bush; five minutes longer than Carly Fiorina; and nearly twice as long as the likes of John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, and Scott Walker. The pattern continued through the full debate season.
After the fact, representatives of all the fallen candidates told me that none of it was inevitable, and that Trump could have been stopped if any of the others had imagined that he would go as far as he did. “If you put any of us in a time capsule and told us a year ago that he might be the nominee, then each candidate would have tried to prevent it in their own way,” Alex Conant, the communications director for Rubio’s campaign, told me after Trump had locked things up. “We all thought that the summer of Trump would not last. So our early strategy was not just to ignore him but actually to try hard not to offend his supporters, so we could be the alternative to him when he inevitably went down. He largely got a free pass until it was too late.” Tim Miller, who worked for Bush, agreed that the other non-Trump candidates were more intent on finishing one another off than attacking him when he might have been vulnerable. “By the end, Marco was scoring points against him,” Miller said. Before his humiliating loss to Trump in his own state of Florida, which forced him out of the race, Rubio was attacking Trump for his ignorance about policy and mocking him on hand size and blowhard traits. “But Marco was already sinking by then, so it was from a position of weakness rather than strength.”
“The rest of them were convinced that Donald Trump didn’t need to be defeated,” Stuart Stevens, who was Mitt Romney’s campaign strategist in 2012, told me. “That was a convenience, because they didn’t have to take him or his supporters on. With Jeb and Rubio, it became like the Bosnian civil war—more into killing each other than winning.” Meanwhile, Trump cruised ahead.
No one can say whether an earlier attack might have finished off Trump. It’s clear that the free pass he received allowed him to dominate and diminish his opponents, as Goodall’s Mike the chimp might if he could talk. “Low-Energy Jeb.” “Little Marco.” “Lyin’ Ted.” His impulsive approach also paralyzed the other campaigns. “When we did our debate prep, we wondered how you can prepare to debate against someone who doesn’t prepare at all himself,” Alex Conant said. “I don’t think Trump had any idea what he was going to say until he said it. All you could be certain of is that if he said something funny or outlandish, that would dominate the news, and you’d be even further behind.”
Trump didn’t “win” all the debates, nor was he always effective minute by minute. When questions got into details of policy, he would set himself on pause until an opportunity for a put-down occurred. “With eight or nine others onstage, he could pick a moment to position himself as the alpha,” Tim Miller said. “And eventually the media got conditioned not to say negative things about his debate performance, since whatever he did, he rose in the polls—while for Jeb or Marco or Ted Cruz, any mistake was seen as ‘devastating.’ ”
Trump’s debate approach was an important part of his strength in the primary. Let’s consider four striking aspects of his performance and what they might mean against Hillary Clinton in the fall.
1 | Simplicity
Donald Trump’s language is notably simple and spare, at every level from word choice to sentence and paragraph structure. Of a thousand examples I’ll use just a few.
In the second Republican debate, hosted by CNN and held at the Reagan library, in California, moderator Jake Tapper asked Trump to explain his “build a wall” immigration plan. Tapper said that fellow candidate Chris Christie had called it impractical. How would Trump respond? He did so this way:
“First of all, I want to build a wall, a wall that works. So important, and it’s a big part of it.
Second of all, we have a lot of really bad dudes in this country from outside, and I think Chris knows that, maybe as well as anybody.
They go. If I get elected, first day they’re gone. Gangs all over the place. Chicago, Baltimore, no matter where you look.
We have a country based on laws.”
Bad dudes. A wall that works. Gangs all over the place. After the first GOP debate Jack Shafer, of Politico, ran the transcript of Trump’s remarks through the Flesch-Kinkaid analyzer of reading difficulty, which said they matched a fourth-grade reading level. One of Trump’s press conferences at about the same time was at a third-grade level.
In political language, plainness is powerful. “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” “Ask not what your country can do for you.” “I have a dream.” This is especially so for language designed to be heard, like speeches and debate exchanges, rather than read from a page. People absorb and retain information in smaller increments through the ear than through the eye. Thus the classic intonations of every major religion have the simple, repetitive cadence also found in the best political speeches. “In the beginning.” “And it was good.” “Let us pray.”
But Trump takes this much further, as he does with so many other things. Decades ago, when I worked on presidential speeches, some news analyst made fun of me for saying in an interview that we were aiming for a seventh-grade level in a certain televised address. But that is generally the level of effective mass communication—newscasts, advertising, speeches—and it is about where most of the other Republicans ended up when Shafer ran their transcripts through the analyzer. (Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and Scott Walker were at an eighth-grade level; Ted Cruz at ninth; and John Kasich at fifth.)
Another illustration: At a Fox Business debate in January in Charleston, South Carolina, Maria Bartiromo asked Trump about criticism from South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, also a Republican, that his tone was too angry. The transcript shows:
“I’m very angry because our country is being run horribly, and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger. Our military is a disaster.” [The outlier word here is mantle.]
“Our health care is a horror show. Obamacare, we’re going to repeal it and replace it. We have no borders. Our vets are being treated horribly. Illegal immigration is beyond belief. Our country is being run by incompetent people. And yes, I am angry.”
“And I won’t be angry when we fix it, but until we fix it, I’m very, very angry. And I say that to Nikki. So when Nikki said that, I wasn’t offended. She said the truth.”
This is the classic language of both persuasion and sales—simple, direct, unmistakable, strong.
Here is one more illustration of the radical simplicity of Trump’s rhetorical style. It is worth noting because Trump finds a way to insert this particular theme as often as possible into rally speeches and debate performances alike. On February 1, Ted Cruz momentarily appeared to be overtaking Trump, by winning the Iowa caucuses. The New Hampshire primary was just a week later, and in between came a debate there hosted by ABC.
Cruz had answered a question about Trump’s temperamental fitness with a statement that was probably way up near 11th grade on the readability scale. For instance, he said that voters “are going to assess who is levelheaded, who has clear vision, who has judgment, who can confront our enemies, who can confront the threats we face in this country, and who can have the judgment when to engage and when not to engage—both are incredibly important for a commander in chief, knowing how to go after our enemies.”
Cruz had been a champion debater, but that was on the elite-college circuit in the early 1990s, not on modern reality TV. Trump asked for moderator David Muir’s attention, and “rebutted” Cruz this way:
“That’s what’s going to happen with our enemies and the people we compete against. We’re going to win with Trump. We’re going to win. We don’t win anymore. Our country doesn’t win anymore. We’re going to win with Trump. And people back down with Trump. And that’s what I like and that’s what the country is going to like.”
Most Americans are accustomed enough to the blunt braggadocio of Trump’s style—I’m really rich! I’ll make great deals!—to barely notice it anymore. Bob Schapiro, a filmmaker and communications scholar who has studied the connection between neuroscience and propaganda, points out that federal regulators apply a principle called “exception for hyperbole” in judging whether advertisements are deceptive. “If you say, ‘Wear these basketball shoes and you can jump over the moon,’ that’s okay, since no reasonable person would believe it,” Schapiro told me. “But if you say they’ll help you to jump an eighth of an inch higher, you’d better have reams of evidence.” The same principle applies to many of Trump’s claims, he said. “When television began, advertisers learned that facts can get them in trouble, but hyperbole is safe. After decades of conditioning, the American public no longer looks for specific facts.”
The simplicity that is so obvious in Trump’s language surprisingly applies to his presentation style as well. Trump’s rise through the primary debates, and his celebrations of successive victories at rallies in between, made it appear that one of his gifts was the ability to combine unvarying emphases and messages with a wide range of dramatic styles. One day he was egging on huge crowds by picking out scattered protesters and yelling, “Get ’em outta here!” The next day he was talking earnestly with sympathetic hosts on Fox News or conservative talk-radio shows—and then in the evening chatting urbanely, in a “we’re all New Yorkers here” style that was a less risqué version of his old radio exchanges with Howard Stern, to win over presumptively less sympathetic figures such as Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel on their shows. Last November, Trump served as host (and danced in a parody rap video) on Saturday Night Live. In February, just after the New Hampshire primary, Stephen Colbert allowed Trump to phone in to his Late Show—and Colbert, for once overmatched, ended up making Trump seem as if he was in on all the jokes rather than the object of them.
In New York, in Washington, in Los Angeles, and even on a trip to Australia I asked people who had done real-estate or entertainment deals with Trump what had struck them about him as a person. All said that of course he was mainly interested in himself, but they also mentioned the talent that has become evident during the campaign. That is his ability to read a room, to sense when he is losing an audience, and to try the tone or theme that will win them back.
This skill helped him during the primaries, when he could bring out a greatest-hits cheer line if he sensed he was losing the audience. In an interview in January, Trump described exactly this strategy to the editorial board of The New York Times: “You know, if it gets a little boring, if I see people starting to sort of, maybe thinking about leaving, I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, ‘We will build the wall!’ and they go nuts.” It began to hurt him after the conventions, when the themes that revved up his enthusiasts differed from those he needed in order to expand his base. And it might trip him up at the debates, which will be unfamiliar terrain. The primary debates had large live audiences that Trump could play to, and they were encouraged to cheer or boo. The audiences at general-election debates are shushed into respectful silence. Experienced debate-prep teams, like those now working with Hillary Clinton, understand that the only audience that matters is the one watching on TV. (Going to a debate is interesting, for the pure spectacle, but it is misleading as to winners and losers, since you’re too far away to see the subtle changes of expression that are so powerful in close-up on TV.) Trump must understand this, from his years on The Apprentice. Much depends on whether he can shift out of crowd-pleasing mode during a debate.
Given the apparent range of Trump’s theatrical skills, I had assumed that his flamboyantly expressive face was a counterpoint to his pared-down vocabulary. Mugging, glowering, pouting, preening—whatever range of descriptors you might think of, more of them come from Trump’s face within a few minutes than from any other 10 candidates’ faces combined.
But one of the authorities I asked about Trump’s speaking style, Jack Brown, said that I was misinterpreting his body language and thus misunderstanding a source of his communicative strength—and a potential weakness. Brown is an ophthalmologist who extended his study of eyes to expertise in the usually involuntary cues given by facial expressions, hand gestures, body movements, and similar signals that enhance or undercut a spoken message. On his website, BodyLanguageSuccess.com, he has provided a running analysis of the way the presidential candidates and other public figures perform.
Brown notes, for instance, that there’s a body-language reason so many people, regardless of ideology, think Ted Cruz is “creepy.” “There’s a telltale look of forced ‘concern’ and ‘sympathy,’ ” he told me. “It’s the central-forehead muscle contraction coupled with a little partial mouth smile which in this context is a red flag.” He says you’ll often see this on TV reporters when they’re trying to signal sympathy for the tornado survivors they’re interviewing, or from a second-tier attorney trying to pluck on a jury’s heartstrings. “If you’re not a good actor, it’s the expression you tend to go to.”
He added that Trump’s body language was unusual because it covered a less expansive range of expressions than most people’s, rather than more. The reason most people betray themselves through body language—we’re generally poor liars; others can tell when we’re faking a smile—is that our face, hands, and torso do more things involuntarily than most of us are aware of or can control. The difference between great actors and everyone else is that great actors can deploy the full range of expressive instruments on command.
“People have noted that Trump’s spoken vocabulary is limited,” Brown told me. “His nonverbal vocabulary is quite limited too. He has a relatively small set of go-to expressions.” The fact that they’re so operatic—the dramatically raised eyebrows, the jabbing finger-pointing at the crowd—distracts from how few of them there are, and how they serve as the physical equivalents of Trump’s spoken refrains of “Believe me!” and “It’s gonna be great.” Brown said that Trump’s most frequently used presentation is the deliberately histrionic yet nonetheless intense nonverbal tone of “the salesman who’s nine-tenths of the way to getting you to sign on the dotted line and whose body language says, ‘What’s it going to take to close this deal?’ ”
An important point, Brown says, is that Trump seems more expressive than, say, Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton, but the range of variation in his face and tone is actually smaller. One consequence, he says, is that “you almost never see from Trump expressions conveying empathy”—the ability to imagine others’ feelings or pain.
The payoff in this understanding of Trump’s body language, according to Brown, is that it explains why he can so often say, with full conviction, things that just aren’t true. The large-scale fantasies are not the issue: build a wall and get Mexico to pay for it; bring China to heel with “great trade deals.” Instead the puzzle with Trump is the gusto with which he presents very specific, and thus specifically disprovable, factual claims. On the same day in late July when he mocked the parents of Humayun Khan, the Muslim American soldier killed in Iraq, Trump also claimed in a TV interview that the NFL had written him a letter complaining about the planned schedule for the debates, which an NFL spokesman immediately denied, and that the Koch brothers had asked for a meeting but he had turned them down, which a Koch spokesman immediately denied.
Trump sounded convinced himself, which made him more convincing to listeners. Jack Brown says this comes naturally from his expressive style. “When you have a more limited vocabulary of words or expressions, it’s easier to lie,” he said. “Everyone lies, but for people with a greater expressive range, it requires more conscious work, and you’re more likely to give yourself away. With a narrower range, the brain doesn’t have to multitask as much and worry about what the face is doing, which makes it easier to deceive.” And so Donald Trump can sound just as convincing saying something that plainly is not true, such as his imagined meeting request from the Kochs, as something that is true.
2 | Ignorance
No one is going to call Trump out on misstatements at a rally. It rarely happened during the Republican-primary debates, because the scramble for airtime discouraged his competitors from bothering to do so instead of talking about themselves. The closest anyone came was during a CNN debate in December, when Hugh Hewitt, a questioner on a panel, tried to pin Trump down on a specific point of knowledge: Given a president’s ultimate responsibility for military decision making, what were his preferences among the elements of the “nuclear triad”?
Most people who hang around think tanks or read Tom Clancy novels, and until this year everyone who has mounted a serious run for the presidency, would know that the “nuclear triad” refers to the three systems that carry U.S. nuclear weapons. These are bombers, land-based missiles, and submarines. Trump had plainly never heard the term before, and after he bluffed his way through one response and a follow-up—“I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me”—Hewitt gave Marco Rubio a chance to step in. Rubio explained the concept in the way you would if you didn’t want to embarrass someone about a point of ignorance: “Maybe a lot of people haven’t heard that terminology before,” he said, graciously rather than mockingly. This was the period when he, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and others were still being nice to Trump, so as to collect his supporters after his inevitable collapse. You could tell how different things were by March, when Trump was rolling and Rubio was fading, and Rubio said that the Republican Party should not pass control to “someone, for example, that has no ideas on foreign—someone who thinks the nuclear triad is a rock band from the 1980s.”
Things will also be different in this fall’s debates. Hillary Clinton will challenge Trump on falsehoods and contradictions, and the moderators will certainly probe to see what he knows and how he can talk about the range of issues a president must confront. Questions in general-election debates are very rarely of the gotcha or spot-knowledge variety. In 1999, a TV interviewer asked then-candidate George W. Bush to name the leader of India (which Bush couldn’t do); debate interviewers don’t ask questions like that, nor even as general-knowledge a query as Hewitt’s about the triad. It’s conceivable that a trick-question peril could emerge in a fashion similar to Ford’s Poland remarks, if Trump blundered into the kind of misstatement he made to George Stephanopoulos about Ukraine. And at least in past campaigns, the closer these revelations came to the general election, the more impact they had.
Trump has a less obvious knowledge-gap challenge, and it could have greater effects. His challenge is to explain the way he thinks about a certain policy or problem, and the trade-offs he would make to achieve a goal—for instance, how great a rise in consumer prices he would accept as a consequence of the steep tariffs he has called for on goods from China or Mexico. Exactly twice during the campaign has Trump shown a willingness or an ability to do that, and not just to fall back on “Build a wall!” applause lines. Once was during a CBS-hosted debate in Greenville, South Carolina, in February, in which Trump discussed a few details of the principle of eminent domain (which had obviously been part of his real-estate operations). The other was at a press conference in June, when he discussed with nuance and feeling the sad necessity of shooting the gorilla Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo after a toddler had fallen into its enclosure (“I don’t think they had a choice”).
Otherwise, to watch Trump’s debate performances and to read his long-interview transcripts is to notice how adept he has become at deflecting any question of detail with his larger, familiar “Make great deals” themes. In a one-on-one debate, there will be time for a follow-up question, and another, and one after that. The time can go very slowly when you’re having to make up a policy rationale.
The usual corrective for areas of shaky knowledge is extensive debate prep. There’s no evidence that Trump prepared at all for his primary debates, though Roger Ailes might change that in the fall; but in any case, age 70 is late in life to fill in areas of basic knowledge. Thus the questioners and Trump’s opponents will probe, which leads us to …
3 | Dominance
Political contests are by definition win or lose. But to compare this year’s Democratic and Republican debates is to see the difference between winning and dominating. Winning means pulling ahead of the opponent, without obviously or visibly doing more than needed to bring the opponent down. That was the tone of most of the Democratic debates—you’re fine, it’s just that I’m better—and of the discourse of most of the Republican contenders except for Trump.
On his “Talking Points Memo” site early this year, the political writer Josh Marshall argued that Trump’s debate and campaign approach was best understood as embodying what he called the “bitch-slap theory of politics.” Marshall says he now avoids that term, which is drawn from, among other places, the world of professional wrestling. But its very crudity underscores its meaning, which is that the essential purpose of any encounter is not to “solve problems” or “advance an agenda” or anything else C‑span-worthy. Instead the constant goal is to humiliate a foe. Humiliation is the central concept here: inflicting it on others, avoiding it oneself. Midway through the Republican-primary debate cycle, I finally saw the 2007 video of a WWE pro-wrestling showdown whose climax was Donald Trump shaving the head of rival promoter Vince McMahon after Trump’s wrestler beat McMahon’s in a match. You wouldn’t need Jane Goodall or Sigmund Freud to see in this spectacle every ritual of dominance, emasculation, ridicule, and humiliation—even with all allowances made for the phony melodrama on which pro wrestling is built. Once I had seen that video, it replayed in my mind every time Trump stepped onto a debate stage.
He was applying versions of the same humiliation ritual to Governor Bush with “Low-Energy Jeb,” to Senator Rubio with “Little Marco,” to Senator Cruz with “Lyin’ Ted,” and perhaps most stingingly of all to Governor Christie, whom he displayed behind him like a captive enemy after Christie had dropped out and thrown his support to Trump. Then, in July, Governor Pence—I am calling these men by their titles to underscore the abasement they went through—was in principle elevated to new dignity as Trump’s running mate. But in reality Trump dealt with him barely more respectfully than with the captured Christie. At the rally where Hillary Clinton introduced Tim Kaine as her vice-presidential selection, Clinton spoke for 15 minutes about Kaine, and then Kaine spoke for 40 minutes on his own. At Trump’s press conference to introduce Pence, Trump spoke for 28 minutes about himself and the foes he had beaten along the way—and periodically, as if remembering at the last minute, said, “Back to Mike Pence,” and put in a few words about him. As Pence began speaking, Trump walked away. It’s not enough that I am a winner. Everyone else must be a loser.
Through the debate cycle, Trump’s opponents tried to turn this tactic on him. In one debate, Jeb Bush called Trump out for having criticized his wife. Trump waved him away, with a “Get outta here” gesture; by just seeing the interaction, without hearing the words, you would know who was the dominant primate. Marco Rubio tried to apply a humiliation ritual of his own to Trump, with jibes about his “small hands” and what else that signified. This obviously bothered Trump, but it also seemed to embarrass Rubio, who soon backed off; Trump proved simply superior in the dominance game, and the primaries offered little evidence that any outburst would alienate his base.
At only three points during the primary campaign did Trump look less than fully in command while on camera. His expression is the crucial part, not simply because images determine public impressions of most debates but also because of the nature of Trump’s dominance politics. For him to look taken aback, he must have registered internally that someone had gotten the better of him. His obvious falsehoods, from “Build a wall” on down, plainly don’t register with him as false while he’s saying them. It is significant that his face and carriage signaled I’m being owned at three moments during the primaries, only one of them during a formal debate.
The first was in late March, at a town hall in Wisconsin where he appeared alone onstage with Chris Matthews of MSNBC. Matthews asked him about his position on abortion, and Trump said, as if to dismiss the question, “I’ve been pro-life.” Matthews asked and asked again what exactly that meant. If abortion should become illegal, then who exactly would be breaking the law? And if the woman seeking an abortion is the criminal, what exactly should her punishment be? The structure of the primary debates had kept any of the candidates or moderators from drilling in this way. Thus almost never in the debates did Trump’s face go through the changes it did while he was onstage with Matthews, as he recognized that he was talking himself into a trap. The trap was coming right out and endorsing, as Trump found himself doing, the implicit but rarely stated logic of a strict pro-life view: that women who seek abortions should be subject to criminal penalties. (Later the campaign released a statement retracting that view, and saying that any criminal penalties should apply to the person performing an abortion, not the woman it was being performed on.)
The second was in an encounter with Megyn Kelly of Fox, but not the famous showdown of the very first debate, which she led off by asking why he had referred to women as “fat pigs” and “slobs.” (This was the basis for his later complaint that she had “blood coming out of her wherever.”) Instead it came nine months later, in May, during the debut of Kelly’s prime-time interview show on the Fox broadcast network, which has a vastly larger audience than the cable-based Fox News. The interview as a whole was generally panned as being too chummy and smarmy. But at one point Kelly asked Trump to explain the personally insulting tweets about her that he had written himself or that others had written and he had retweeted. He tried to laugh it off—“You’d be amazed at the things I don’t retweet”—but she did not laugh back.
She interjected, “ ‘Bimbo’?”
He replied, “Did I say that?”
“Many times,” Kelly said, staring right at him. Eventually Trump broke and said, “Okay, excuse me!” as a joke. She then switched, after a beat, to a laugh herself, but he didn’t look in control.
The final case was the only one to occur on a debate stage, and again involved a showdown with an unamused woman. This debate, in September at the Reagan library, was the first one in which Carly Fiorina joined Trump, Bush, Ben Carson, and others for the main event, rather than being consigned to the undercard. Moderator Jake Tapper asked Fiorina to respond to Trump’s saying about her, in a Rolling Stone interview, “Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?” Fiorina memorably said, “I think women across the country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” Trump, at a loss, made things worse by saying, “I think she’s got a beautiful face! She’s a beautiful woman.” The split screen showed Fiorina turned away from Trump but looking daggers. Trump was saved as CNN cut to a commercial break.
Donald Trump was made to look bad by one interviewer with the time, preparation, and guts to pursue a line of questioning, and by two women who discussed right in front of him the ugly things he has said.
If he shows up for this fall’s debates, he’ll encounter moderators with a lot of time to explore issues, and a woman with decades of onstage toughness behind her.
4 | Gender
The gender stakes in this encounter are the most obvious aspect of it. The contrast is as if Barack Obama’s opponent, in his attempt to become America’s first black president, had not been John McCain but rather George Wallace or Strom Thurmond. The potential first woman president of the United States, who is often lectured about being too “strident” or “shrill,” is up against a caricature of the alpha male, for whom stridency is one more mark of strength.
I spoke at length with linguists and gender scholars about how awareness of this axis might affect the public’s response to the debates, or Hillary Clinton’s preparation for them. (Why am I leaving out Team Trump? Because in this as in so many other fields, there’s no evidence that Trump intends systematic preparation of any sort.)
Deborah Tannen, the author of You Just Don’t Understand, talked about the hair’s-breadth margin in which female public speakers have to operate. On one side, they’d be too weak and submissive; on the other, too scolding or tedious. She pointed out that popular culture for some reason recognizes a category of “Texas women” who are allowed to be tough, sassy, and funny—former Governor Ann Richards, the writer Molly Ivins, former Representative Barbara Jordan (all unfortunately now dead)—in ways that would seem “harsh” from other women. Robin Lakoff, a linguist at UC Berkeley, said that Clinton would be expected to “stand up” to Trump, but if she did, “there’s a risk of being called ‘vituperative’ and ‘angry,’ which is such a worse word for women than men.” The performance coach Joel Silberman, who has worked with Senator Elizabeth Warren, said that “for many people, in particular straight white males and many black males, the most frightening sound is their mother’s voice in a certain tone.” This tone—Hen-REE! Get back here this instant!—is, according to Silberman, “so powerful that it can bring a 300-pound football player running from across the field.” As Hillary Clinton knows better than anyone, the decades or millennia that have created this stereotype will affect the way people who listen to these debates hear her. “We have to understand that everything about this reflects sexist sensibilities,” Silberman said. “But it is the reality.” More than 20 years ago, after Clinton’s failed effort to encourage passage of health-care reform but before the nightmare of impeachment, the Republican pollster Frank Luntz told David Maraniss of The Washington Post that Clinton “reminds most men of their first wife—or mother-in-law.” It was shockingly sexist then, and is still part of what she faces today.
The biggest surprise of talking with people about this language bind for Hillary Clinton is where the conversations ended up. Precisely because gender coding is so powerful an element for these debates, Clinton might as well forget about it. She is not going to change who she is; unlike Donald Trump, she has been through a lot of encounters like this already; there’s no question she hasn’t answered many times; and the more relaxed she feels, the funnier and sharper she is likely to be. “If I were Clinton, I might think back on those Benghazi-commission hearings,” Robin Lakoff said. “She was very calm. She just swatted the questions back. She didn’t have to say ‘This is silly’ or ‘Why are you bothering?,’ because everything in her presence said that.
“And she’ll be talking with a man who is obviously not good when women are arguing with him. Just the fact that she’s standing there, as a woman, will be disconcerting. She should have fun!”
What’s Donald Trump’s strategy for the debates? It’s to hope that Hillary Clinton—so practiced, perhaps complacent—has a bad, tense, or testy night. One means toward that end, if the very aggressive Roger Ailes is coaching him, might be to launch a series of unconcealed personal attacks. What about Monica Lewinsky? What about those emails? What about your lies? The other, opposite approach might be to do what Republicans were expecting when Trump clinched the nomination, which is to “pivot” to presenting himself as an affable, amiable, big-tent candidate. Neither approach would require frantic boning-up on policy details. At this stage of his life and campaign, he knows what he knows. But if he seems better than expected, either by throwing Clinton off her game or appearing calmer than a wound-up opponent who gives a dense six-point answer to every question, he might achieve something similar to Reagan’s “There you go again!”
The best debate preparation might be to not prepare at all and instead to downplay his prospects—this is a rigged game, for crooked insiders—so that if he manages to stay standing at the end, he will be seen as having beaten the spread and won the pundits’ favorite expectations game. His representatives in the “spin room” should stress that simply getting out alive should be considered a victory for Trump, since this will be the zillionth head-to-head debate of her career, and for him the very first.
But for Hillary Clinton, who certainly will prepare? Every expert I spoke with who was not on her team had his or her preferred advice. Stuart Stevens, who prepared Mitt Romney to dominate Barack Obama in their first 2012 debate, said that she should launch the direct attack that Trump’s primary opponents were too slow to use. “He is a ridiculous person who doesn’t know anything, which she can expose,” he told me. “She can say, ‘Mr. Trump says he supports the Bill of Rights—by the way, how many are there? He represents the party of Lincoln. By the way, when did he serve?’ You have to go right in there and demonstrate the utter ridiculousness of everything he says.”
Samuel L. Popkin, a political scientist at UC San Diego who has been part of the debate-prep team for many Democratic politicians, recommended a version of what Chris Matthews did with his abortion questions. “She can ask him about his policy of renegotiating the national debt,” he told me. “Then she comes right back, boom, ‘If you say that as president, you’ve just caused a worldwide stock-market crash.’ She doesn’t want to bog down into details. But she can show the specific, crucial details that pull everything else down.”
Most people I spoke with recommended a picador-like mocking approach, designed not to confront Trump directly but to cumulatively provoke him into an outburst. About his physical endowments, he is not so much thin-skinned as skinless, as Marco Rubio demonstrated—but no one I spoke with thought this a wise path for Clinton to follow. Instead she could mock him on his other point of greatest sensitivity: that he may be a fake billionaire and phony business success. From history’s perspective, the most damaging moment for Trump from the Democratic convention was when Khizr Khan spoke about the death of his son, Captain Humayun Khan. For Trump himself, I would imagine it was the moment when Michael Bloomberg, unquestionably richer than he is, said, “I’m a New Yorker, and New Yorkers know a con when we see one.” When Comedy Central hosted a roast of Trump five years ago, he didn’t seem to object to jokes about his hair, about his weight, even about his lecherous remarks regarding his daughter Ivanka. The one subject he nixed, according to Aaron Lee, a writer for the roast, was “any joke that suggests Trump is not actually as wealthy as he claims to be.” So this is a scab Hillary Clinton should deftly pick.
Donald Trump will almost certainly insult her directly, about her own crookedness and about the sins of her husband. This was the heart of his strategy during the primary debates—“I call him ‘Little Marco’ ”; “More energy tonight. I like that” to Bush—and is his instinct. She will answer those quickly and firmly—“My husband and I have been through a lot, as the world well knows. But after 41 years, we are still together”—and then move back to whatever policy point she wants to make. One way to describe this strategy is Martin O’Malley’s. “She has to be direct and tough right back to him, but then quickly pivot to what matters for the country,” he said. “It’s not enough just to disqualify this guy, since he’s survived remarks that in other times have been automatically disqualifying. She also needs to say what the election is about.”
Another way to describe this strategy is to use a phrase from Michelle Obama’s convention speech: When they go low, we go high.
To my reportorial sorrow, I’ve learned over the years that good debate-prep teams are very closemouthed. So exactly what the Clinton team is planning, I can’t say directly. But I can guess. I expect that we’ll hear Clinton turning Trump’s most inflammatory quotes against him, as she has already done in her ads. I expect that she’ll try to use every foray and attack by him as the premise for a “Let’s talk about the real issues” response. And I will be watching to see whether a candidate who, as a female Democrat, might seem a clear contrast to Ronald Reagan can nevertheless match the emotional victory he won in the 1980 debate, by seeming affably comfortable with herself and convincingly positive about the prospects of the nation under her leadership.
That’s what I expect, but we won’t know until it happens. Which is why we watch. This election campaign is telling us more about the country than most Americans anticipated. The debates will too.
*Photo illustration: Photos by Dennis Van Tine / AP and Paul Sancya / AP