Tough Debate Moderation Won't Stop Donald Trump

Liberals who hope a good, thorough fact-checking would disillusion the Republican nominee’s supporters are doomed to disappointment.

Donald Trump and Matt Lauer at Wednesday's Commander in Chief Forum
Mike Segar / Reuters

Who thought Matt Lauer was a good choice to moderate last night's NBC Commander in Chief Forum? Lauer is an affable enough guy with a great deal of experience interviewing famous people—but he’s not exactly known for flinty, challenging questions, nor is he a political specialist, deeply immersed in the subject matter a presidential faux-debate covers. There’s a reason he hosts Today and not Meet the Press.

Adding an additional layer of awkwardness, Lauer was previously listed as a member of the Clinton Foundation Initiative, leading to questions about whether he could impartially question the candidates. Perhaps that spurred Lauer to question Clinton more aggressively than Trump Wednesday night.

Whatever the reason, Lauer’s performance has been rightly panned, most enjoyably by James Poniewozik. The most obvious example came when Trump asserted he had opposed the war in Iraq in 2003, and implied he had opposed the intervention in Libya in 2011. Not only is Trump lying—as James Fallows has been pointing out over and over again—but it is well-known by now that he is lying. He has repeatedly said that and has been repeatedly called out; live fact-checking is a high-wire act, and not all hosts are up to the task, but this one was a gimme.

A corollary to the critique of Lauer is the idea that if only someone would ask Trump some tougher questions, the Republican nominee’s mountain of falsehoods would come tumbling down. For example, Jonathan Chait, after gamely admitting he spends little time watching mass-market media like NBC, writes:

Lauer’s attempt to press Trump was the completely ineffectual technique of asking repeatedly if he is ready to serve as commander-in-chief. Lauer probably believes the answer is no, but nothing about this question would drive home Trump’s extraordinary lack of knowledge. Instead it allowed him to performatively demonstrate his confident, alpha-male reality-show character as a prospective chief executive.

Lauer’s performance matters because it falls short the journalistic duty to convey the truth, not because a better one would have burst Trump’s bubble. Lauer ought to have pointed out that Trump was lying about Iraq because Trump was lying, not because the act of calling him out scores points or moves votes.

The liberal belief, or hope, that if Trump just got a good fact-checking, the scales would fall from 40-some-percent of the American people’s eyes and they would desert him is an illusion. After all, one reason Lauer’s oversight is so glaring is that so many people have noted the lie. Clearly, that has done nothing to dissuade Trump from repeating it.

There are some reporters who have done a good job of pushing back when Trump bends the truth—witness Sopan Deb’s heroic real-time reporting, or Jake Tapper’s stellar interview about Judge Gonzalo Curiel. Nor is Trump an unknown candidate; he entered the election with about as high a level of name recognition as any candidate not named Clinton could have had. As Christie Aschwanden wrote at FiveThirtyEight in July, impressions of both candidates are already pretty fixed. There’s very little that would sway most committed voters, and tough questioning from Matt Lauer isn’t one.

The belief also requires attributing excessive naïveté to Trump backers, which is both condescending and incorrect. Trump, for all his promises to return America to a simpler, older time, is a post-modern candidate, and both he and his supporters can seem unbound by empirical truths. Many Trump supporters know that Trump doesn’t always tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, just as they are often willing to concede that a comment he made here or there went farther than it should have. These supporters will typically write those concerns off by citing the fact that Trump is not a slave to political correctness, or that he voices the frustration they feel, or that he tells it like he feels it, without the dissembling polish of a practiced politico. One may disagree with these arguments, but it’s hard to see how tougher questions would refute them.

More broadly, the political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Riefler have shown that fact-checking can have a “backfire effect,” simply reinforcing mistaken beliefs. This is no reason not to fact-check, but it is a good reason not to invest the action with talismanic powers to shift the course of a race.

Josh Marshall advances an interesting Slate-pitch view of the Lauer performance, which holds that the moderator was really just giving Trump enough rope to hang himself—for example, by yet again tying himself to Vladimir Putin and praising the Russian strongman. There’s no reason to believe this was Lauer’s intent, though it may indeed have the effect of adding to the accreted cases of facepalm-worth Trump comments. It’s not the fact-checks that get to Trump, because the truth isn’t his aim. His overreaches and exaggerations are a bigger risk.

Lauer deserves the criticism being lobbed at him today, and the moderators at the official presidential debates—including his colleague Lester Holt—are likely to be more effective than he was. But none of them is going to save Hillary Clinton and vanquish Trump. Only she can do that.