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A taxonomy of Donald Trump’s most reliable debate tactics

Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump Face Off In First Presidential Debate At Hofstra University
Donald Trump during the first presidential debate at Hofstra Univeristy on September 26.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The conventional wisdom about Donald Trump is that on the debate stage and off, he’s unpredictable — so unpredictable that Martin O’Malley, who challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, told the Atlantic’s James Fallows that Trump is like “a monkey with a machine gun.”

But the truth is that Trump’s 11 primary debates predicted his performance in the first presidential debate on September 26. In every debate appearance so far, he’s used a handful of tricks that, when they worked, did so because they aren’t the way politicians usually act.

Trump approaches every debate like the world’s most high-stakes reality TV show, and the part he’s playing isn’t that of a US president, but of a winner.

Trump creates catchphrases. He crafts narratives about heroes and villains. He sprinkles in commentary and asides to the audience. He stirs up interpersonal drama. And he appeared to firmly believe — like the reality TV contestants we love to hate — that he was the star of the show.

It worked in the primaries, where he was able to stand out from the crowd, steamrolling opponents and flustering fact-checkers. But the same tactics that carried him to the Republican nomination faltered when Trump was confronted with a single opponent. He couldn’t fade into the background when the discussion turned to policy. He couldn’t rely on the fact that, eventually, the moderators would have to move on to someone else.

Even worse, the fact that his reactions are repetitive and predictable made him easy to bait.

To fare better against Hillary Clinton in Sunday’s second debate and in the third debate on October 19, Trump might have to develop some new tricks. But it appears to be difficult to him to abandon the formulas that got him this far.

1) Catchphrases: Trump speaks in memorable but meaningless three-word slogans

Politicians have talking points. Reality TV stars, and Trump, have catchphrases. By now, you know his: “Build the wall.” “Bring jobs back.” “Take the oil.” “We don’t have a country.” “Make America great again.”

At debates and at rallies, Trump returned to those themes like a band being asked to play “Freebird,” never straying too far from his greatest hits. Despite his reputation for being a man who would say just about anything on the debate stage, during the 11 primary debates he attended, he did the opposite. He strung the same catchphrases and stock vocabulary together into short, punchy, grammatically and syntactically unlikely sentences that were the opposite of political rhetoric.

For example, here’s his closing statement from the fifth primary debate, in Las Vegas:

I'm the most solid person up here. I built a tremendous company, and all I want to do is make America great again. I don't want our country to be taken away from us, and that's what's happening. The policies that we've suffered under other presidents have been a disaster for our country. We want to make America great again.

During the primaries, Trump stuck out onstage because he didn’t sound like anyone else, and because his signature catchphrases stuck in your head. This was particularly true in the largest debates, when no one got much time to talk and other candidates’ answers tended to blend together.

His penchant for short, simple, punchy sentences, though, contrasts with Clinton as well. The first presidential debate stayed away from some of Trump’s signature issues, particularly immigration. But Trump still responded, when possible, in his signature style:

Companies will come. They will build. They will expand. New companies will start. And I look very, very much forward to doing it. We have to renegotiate our trade deals, and we have to stop these countries from stealing our companies and our jobs.

Those aren’t all the same stock phrases Trump had previously used. But they rely on the same three-word rhythm. And when Trump could use a catchphrase or two, he seized on the opportunity, as when he was asked about crime:

Well, first of all, Secretary Clinton doesn't want to use a couple of words, and that's law and order. And we need law and order. If we don't have it, we're not going to have a country.

The problem is that in longer debates, Trump can’t only rely on catchphrases — and Clinton may very well embrace the contrast in their styles.

2) Mythmaking: Trump turns tough policy questions into simple stories

Most politicians take a story about a specific example and then pivot to using that narrative to enforce a broader point. This is what Hillary Clinton was Trump does the opposite. He takes a broader point and boils it down to a specific story told in comic book terms about good and evil.

Trump knows that people watch reality TV for the same reason they love sports and fairy tales. The easiest story to follow is a simple morality tale about heroes and villains. So when Trump was supposed to be selling a policy, he’d instead tell a story.

Here’s his response during the sixth primary debate, in South Carolina, to the accusation that he was out of touch with conservative values because he was a New Yorker — something he’d already answered concisely by pointing out that William F. Buckley lived in Manhattan:

When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York. You had two 110-story buildings come crashing down. I saw them come down. Thousands of people killed, and the cleanup started the next day, and it was the most horrific cleanup, probably in the history of doing this, and in construction. I was down there, and I've never seen anything like it.

And the people in New York fought and fought and fought, and we saw more death, and even the smell of death -- nobody understood it. And it was with us for months, the smell, the air.

And we rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers.

Though 9/11 turned into a story about heroes, mostly Trump’s stories from the primary debates were about villains. ISIS was cutting off heads and drowning people in metal cages. The families of the 9/11 attackers were tipped off before the fact and flew home (which did not happen).

During the first presidential debate, his penchant for storytelling was most on display when discussing crime. Trump was asked how to heal the racial divide in America. Instead of reflecting on the question, he started telling stories about cities where things were going wrong:

In Chicago, they've had thousands of shootings, thousands since January 1st. Thousands of shootings. And I'm saying, where is this? Is this a war-torn country? What are we doing? And we have to stop the violence. We have to bring back law and order. In a place like Chicago, where thousands of people have been killed, thousands over the last number of years, in fact, almost 4,000 have been killed since Barack Obama became president, over -- almost 4,000 people in Chicago have been killed. We have to bring back law and order.

Particularly during the primary debates, Trump often wasn’t telling true stories. But the truth didn’t seem to matter so much as whether the story felt true. They have what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness” or sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls the “deep story” — the stories are a way of explaining the world that feels true to Trump’s supporters.

The story is a parable that’s meant to communicate a larger point — to his fans, fact-checking it is like asking the prodigal son’s father to show proof that he really killed the fatted calf.

3) The Gish Gallop: Trump’s endless parade of falsehoods

The Gish Gallop, named after a believer in creationism, is a debate technique when you cite so much “evidence” that is misleading or wrong that your opponent can’t correct all of it and still make any of his or her own points.

Trump is a master of this technique, and amplifies it by being unwilling to give an inch when challenged. During the fifth primary debate, nearly every substantive answer he gave included a wildly false claim:

  • Trump claimed that people are “pouring across the Southern border.” (Border crossings dropped dramatically during the recession and have stayed at near-record lows since.)
  • He alleged that among Syrian refugees and migrants, “tens of thousands of people” had “cellphones with ISIS flags on them.” (This came from a Norwegian newspaper report that an unspecified number of photos of executions and ISIS flags were found on migrants’ phones; the Norwegian police pointed out there might be benign reasons to have them, such as bearing witness to what they’d seen.)
  • He claimed “numerous people … knew what was going on” before the San Bernardino attacks and that “they saw a pipe bomb sitting all over the floor, ammunition all over the place.” (There is no evidence this was true.)
  • He claimed that before 9/11, “friends, family, girlfriends, were sent back … they knew what was going on. They went home and they wanted to watch their boyfriends on television.” (None of the hijackers even had family in the US before the attacks; this is an utterly false story.)
  • And he repeated a falsehood he’s told many times since then: “I was totally against going into Iraq because you're going to destabilize the Middle East. I called it. I called it very strongly.” (Trump supported the Iraq War.)

These falsehoods often go unchallenged. But even when they don’t, Trump utterly refuses to back down, as in this bizarre exchange from the third primary debate over whether he really persuaded CNBC to shorten its running time:

TRUMP: Let me give you one quick example. These folks, CNBC, they had it down at three, three and a half hours. I just read today in the New York Times, $250,000 for a 30-second ad. I went out and said, it's ridiculous… Everybody said it was going to be three hours, three and a half, including them, and in about two minutes I renegotiated it so we can get the hell out of here. Not bad.

JOHN HARWOOD: Just for the record, the debate was always going to be two hours. Sen. Rubio?

TRUMP: That's not right. That is absolutely not right. You know that. That is not right.

As PolitiFact explained, CNBC had planned for two hours of debate time, plus commercial breaks; the Trump and Carson campaigns demanded it be two hours including commercials, a marginal difference. But when Trump is challenged on his facts, he never backs down or even admits he’s exaggerating.

During the first presidential debate, this was the technique Trump used when he was pressed on why he’d continued to publicly doubt whether Obama was born in the United States:

But I was the one that got him to produce the birth certificate. And I think I did a good job. Secretary Clinton also fought it. I mean, you know -- now, everybody in mainstream is going to say, oh, that's not true. Look, it's true. Sidney Blumenthal sent a reporter -- you just have to take a look at CNN, the last week, the interview with your former campaign manager. And she was involved. But just like she can't bring back jobs, she can't produce.

This is a bizarre melange of insinuations and falsehoods. Clinton and her 2008 campaign were not involved in accusing Obama of having been born abroad. Blumenthal reportedly mentioned the rumor to someone at the McClatchy news service, but he did not “send a reporter” to check it out. Debunking all of this, though, would have taken up considerable time, and so most of it was allowed to stand.

4) Drama: How Trump riled up antagonists

It wasn’t just policy questions that Trump reduced to heroes and villains. The debate stage, too, became a place for him to pick out an antagonist and engage in a dominance ritual with him (it was always a “him”), straining to shout him down or humiliate him.

The sole point of many of these displays seemed to be to get attention. Often, they devolved into shouting matches over who was talking, as during the fifth debate:

TRUMP: Am I talking or are you talking, Jeb?

BUSH: I'm talking right now. I'm talking.

TRUMP: You can go back. You're not talking. You interrupted me.

BUSH: September 30, you said…

TRUMP: Are you going to apologize, Jeb? No. Am I allowed to finish?

Trump would also pick out one or two antagonists during any given debate — always some combination of Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz — to try to take down. The point wasn’t to get them to concede a policy point to him, but to establish that Trump was the one who should be allowed to talk.

Trump used personal insults and accusations of interrupting. He turned attacks against him; at the 11th Republican debate on Fox News, when Rubio criticized Trump University as a scam and a fraud, Trump retorted, “He scammed the people of Florida. He scammed people. He doesn't vote. He doesn't show up for the US Senate. He doesn't vote. He scammed the people. He defrauded the people of Florida.”

Usually, nobody came out of these exchanges looking good. But Trump figured out that, in primary debates as on reality TV, the cameras love the contestant who knows how to get attention. And Trump is great at getting attention.

Early in the first presidential debate, Trump was able to pull Clinton into some of these exchanges — and the first one ended badly for her:

TRUMP: But you haven't done it in 30 years or 26 years or any number you want to...

CLINTON: Well, I've been a senator, Donald...

TRUMP: You haven't done it. You haven't done it.

CLINTON: And I have been a secretary of state...

TRUMP: Excuse me.

CLINTON: And I have done a lot...

TRUMP: Your husband signed NAFTA, which was one of the worst things that ever happened to the manufacturing industry.

CLINTON: Well, that's your opinion. That is your opinion.

“That is your opinion” is not, shall we say, a stinging comeback.

As the debate went on, Clinton got pulled into fewer of these exchanges. Perhaps she realized that it’s very hard to win one head-to-head against Trump — and that both candidates involved just end up looking worse.

5) Running commentary: Trump lets the voters peek behind the curtain

At nearly every primary debate, Trump would turn to what he considered the ultimate source of authority: his poll numbers. But this was part of a larger pattern of providing running commentary on the race, his opponents’ strategies, and sometimes his own — as if, having participated in the drama on the main stage, he was now filming the talking head segment where he turns to the camera for an interview about what just happened.

Citing his poll numbers, which he did constantly, is part of this — appealing to what he considers the ultimate arbiter, popularity, to sum up his standings. But Trump also provides more running meta-commentary on the process of running for president, hinting that he’s letting the audience in on a big secret.

For example, during the 10th primary debate, after he said that insurance executives didn’t like his proposal to repeal Obamacare in favor of letting insurers sell across state lines:

I shouldn't tell you guys, you'll say it's terrible, I have a conflict of interest. They're friends of mine, there's some right in the audience. One of them was just waving to me, he was laughing and smiling. He's not laughing so much anymore.

Hi.

Even if Trump is lying about everything else, his honesty about his own cynicism can come off as refreshing. But it’s another way that, as a showman, he understands how to get the public’s attention.

During the first presidential debate, Trump didn’t rely as much on this strategy, perhaps because the polls haven’t been favorable to him.

6) Filibusters: Trump runs out the clock before he has to give details

Politicians are experts at not answering the question they were asked. The classic move is to call it a “very good question” and pivot to a somewhat related subject on which they can speak more expertly.

Trump’s version of this is a bit different, because he doesn’t seem to care if he sounds expert at all, so long as he’s eating up the clock and making it less likely that he’ll be pressed for details. During the primary debates, he often would ramble enough to fill up nearly all the time he was allotted, then throw out a catchphrase or generalization. From the second primary debate:

JAKE TAPPER: What would you do right now if you were president, to get the Russians out of Syria?

TRUMP: So, number one, they have to respect you. He has absolutely no respect for President Obama. Zero.

Syria’s a mess. You look at what’s going on with ISIS in there, now think of this: we’re fighting ISIS. ISIS wants to fight Syria. Why are we fighting ISIS in Syria? Let them fight each other and pick up the remnants.

I would talk to him. I would get along with him. I believe — and I may be wrong, in which case I’d probably have to take a different path, but I would get along with a lot of the world leaders that this country is not getting along with.

We don’t get along with China. We don’t get along with the heads of Mexico. We don’t get along with anybody, and yet, at the same time, they rip us left and right. They take advantage of us economically and every other way. We get along with nobody.

I will get along, I think, with Putin, and I will get along with others, and we will have a much more stable — stable world.

This is the strategy Trump turned to when he was asked about cybersecurity during the first presidential debate. In the answer to a question and follow-up from moderator Lester Holt, he referred to the issue as “the cyber,” referenced his preteen son, suggested “someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds” could have hacked into the Democratic National Committee, and mentioned how many generals and admirals had endorsed him. He did not answer the question of who is behind the growing trend of cyber attacks, or suggest how he would fight it.

And although moderators, at both the primary debates and on September 26, pressed Trump to actually answer the question, eventually, they had to give up and move on. These word-salad answers are not victories for Trump. But they play off his cast-iron resistance to embarrassment. Trump seems to think that as long as he’s talking, he’s winning.

7) Egomania: Trump only cares when the conversation is about him

Donald Trump never appears to doubt that he’s the main attraction, the center of attention in every room he’s in. During the primary debates, this translated to Trump engaging quickly if he were personally named or insulted but fading into the background — and often appearing not to pay attention at all — when candidates turned to other topics.

During the fourth debate in Milwaukee, several candidates had a spirited exchange about budgetary policy. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio scuffled over whether Rubio’s proposed child tax credit was conservative, then went on to debate military spending. Cruz piggybacked on Rubio’s point — that defending the US through military spending was a necessity — to name the programs he’d like to eliminate, and Carly Fiorina spoke up for zero-based budgeting.

It was a dense, interesting conversation that exposed real differences among the candidates. Trump didn’t try to cut into it until he was called on, and then gave a vague answer that suggested he was paying the bare minimum of attention: “We all have a different tax plan. Some I don’t totally agree with. One thing we understand, each one of those tax plans is better than the mess that we have right now.”

Trump not paying attention went beyond fading into the background. In Miami, at the final debate, Rubio went after Trump for saying he could save Social Security by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse, correctly pointing out the math on that was ludicrous. In a minute-long answer, Rubio said Trump’s numbers “don’t add up” or “won’t add up” three times.

CNN’s Dana Bash then turned to Trump, and he appeared to have missed the entire exchange:

BASH: Sen. Rubio says that your numbers don't add up. What's your response, Mr. Trump?

TRUMP: Well, I don't know if he's saying that.

Trump doesn’t seem to be joking; he doesn’t pause to wait for audience reaction. And it fits with his pattern of rarely responding to what other candidates have said unless they mention him by name.

But Trump could count on a few certainties in those early debates: The conversation would have to move on. He could run out the clock with filibusters, give vague answers, and be confident that he’d face at most one or two follow-up questions. He would find an opponent willing to rise to his bait, participating in his version of testosterone-laden drama. If the debate turned to policy, he could fade into the background.

In the first matchup with Clinton, these strategies didn’t work nearly as well. His attention and focus frayed after 30 minutes of intense back-and-forth, and there was no way for him to fade into the background. He was expected to answer a question beyond simply giving catchphrases. And his attempts to start personal fights with Clinton backfired as often as they succeeded.

If Trump is going to perform better in the second and third debates, his track record so far suggests his usual tricks won’t be enough.