Here’s How We Need to Watch the Next 2 Debates

10 minute read

Robin Lakoff is a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Language and Woman's Place

It is useful to see the presidential debates as, above all, auditions for a role, and to see the debaters as actively auditioning for a desired role, and the other participants (moderator, commentators and audience) as using debate performance to determine the performers’ suitability for the role they seek. Debating, like any other human communicative activity, has its rules and expectations, violations of which can and should be judged as evidence of a candidate’s suitability for the job. If you can’t manage to obey the relatively simple rules of the debate structure for a mere 90-odd minutes, there is reason to doubt whether you are ready or able to play the much harder role for which you are auditioning, for a whole four years.

The candidates’ job is to:

  • Address the moderator’s questions directly;
  • Be honest (well, more or less);
  • Be courteous to moderator and opponent.
  • The moderator’s job is to:

  • Ask tough questions of each auditioner;
  • Be even-handed;
  • Be tough about time.
  • The commentators’ job is to:

  • Treat candidates equally, overcoming stereotypical expectations;
  • Understand what the debate is really about (i.e., don’t fuss over gaffes).
  • The audience’s job is to:

  • Avoid reliance on stereotypes;
  • Be prepared to change opinions;
  • Match candidates’ performances against the role for which they are auditioning.
  • It is useful to recall that—despite what we have always been told—style may be a more relevant diagnostic than content. A shaky president can always find advisers to tell him or her what to think and do, but: first, the president must have the sense to choose the best advisers; the president must listen to them; and, most of all, the president must communicate those ideas effectively. Competent communication is the hallmark of a successful presidency, and audiences should watch presidential debates with the question in mind: “Is this persuasive behavior?”

    With that in mind, what was important at the first presidential debate?

    Very briefly, I found Hillary Clinton’s performance persuasive, eloquent and well-reasoned. I found Donald Trump’s weird and well below what Americans should demand of their president. Why? Here are a few things that I found strange and/or appalling.

    First, consider his arguments, the substance of his case:

    Trump appears to believe that repetition equals explanation. If he’s trying to make a point and his opponent or the moderator questions it, Trump does not usually explain what he is getting at; rather, he reiterates what he said, often several times. Reiteration does not make an argument true. At best it is empty; at worst, bullying.

    Likewise, denial of the truth is not equivalent to proving the truth of the denial. Repeated iterations of “that’s false” does not make an opponent’s (or the moderator’s) claim false. Particularly when the denial is part of a repeated habit of speaking over or interrupting someone else, the denial has to strike a hearer as chintzy at best, intimidation at worst.

    A debater shouldn’t say things that are not only false but idiotically so. Trump’s repeated iterations that everything bad that ever happened to anyone must be Clinton’s fault serve mostly to remind hearers that Trump knows very little about history or civics. Anti-American and Western resentment in the Middle East (with good reason) began before Clinton was born; she (and President Obama) could not logically have been the “founders” of ISIS. (Think “Lawrence of Arabia.”) More recently, versions of bad behavior that inspired our current problems in that region can be laid at the feet of Bush 41, Bush 43, and Dick Cheney. When Clinton was First Lady of Arkansas, she had very little say in America’s Middle Eastern policies.

    Trump repeatedly implied that as Secretary of State, Clinton was responsible for our going into and getting out of Iraq (among a raft of other misdoings). But the Secretary of State does not declare or make war: that’s the job of Congress, the President, and the Secretary of Defense. That Trump could repeatedly make or presuppose this assumption suggests his naiveté about how the government he wants to head actually runs—a very dangerous gap at this point, suggesting as so often that Trump has astonishingly little interest in the actual nitty-gritty workings of the job he covets.

    A debater also shouldn’t reveal deep prejudices against the sort of person—e.g., female—his opponent is. While Trump was careful not to attack Clinton herself on gender grounds, he managed to swipe at a variety of women for no good reasons.

    There was one peculiar moment fairly early on. Trump was speaking about the economy the Federal Reserve, and as part of his attack, threw out the name, “Janet Yellen.” Then, abruptly, he stopped mid-sentence, paused momentarily, and embarked on a completely different line of attack. It seemed almost as if, at the mention of Yellen, a signal went off—ding!—in his brain, perhaps a device planted by Kellyanne Conway whispering, “DON’T TRASH WOMEN!” I have no evidence whatsoever that that was what was going on. But it sure was strange.

    Then, at the end, Clinton asked Trump directly about his attitudes toward women. He could have made a generous statement about the importance of women in his life, and so on. But instead, he used his answer to trash a couple of other women from his past.

    First came his ancient bête noire, Rosie O’Donnell. Among his gratuitous slurs, he had to mention that “everyone” agreed with his assessment of her. (Guess what, Donald? “Everyone” doesn’t.) Then Clinton brought up a Latina Miss Universe candidate whom Trump had called “fat” and “Miss Housekeeper,” Trump responded by voicing over Clinton’s statements with “false…false…false.”

    And finally, Lester Holt asked Trump directly what he had meant by saying that Clinton didn’t have “a presidential look.” Trump, despite Holt’s prodding, refused to address her “look.” (It’s true that Clinton doesn’t look presidential. That is exactly why we need her to be president.) But he then went flailing into attacking her “stamina,” mostly showing he had no idea what the word meant. Or maybe he did.

    “Stamina” is etymologically the plural form of “stamen,” the pollen-producing part of a flower, and its male analogue, equivalent to “balls.” (The “pistil” is the female counterpart). Trump appeared to be trying to get at the idea that Clinton, for no discernible reason, didn’t have the [male] parts to bear up under presidential pressure, as Trump so clearly does (“the small-fingered vulgarian,” remarked Maureen Dowd a bit later, on “Charlie Rose.” Can’t keep sex out of these debates, I fear.) So for Trump, accusing Clinton of a lack of “stamina” is the same as saying she doesn’t have a “presidential look,” and in this context, is another trashing of women generally by trashing Clinton for running for president while female.

    But content is just part of being a competent communicator, and in this kind of discourse, a part of lesser importance. More important, for an audience of potential voters, is discerning whether an auditioner has communicative competence: knows how to adapt style to setting, whether a lectern at Hofstra or the Oval Office. If a candidate can show the ability to do one, odds are he or she can do the other, and vice versa. And here too, at every turn, Trump demonstrated that he did not have the skill of a normal adult, let alone a potential POTUS. Here, too, some very odd things transpired over the 90 minutes.

    One thing a debater of any kind needs to be able to do is look serious and together. Continuously over the course of the debate, Trump did something very different—something I have never seen before in a presidential debate or, really, anywhere else in adult conversation. Without pause, he made odd faces and did peculiar forms of body language: squirming and twisting around. (Clinton smiled and stood still.) I couldn’t figure out what Trump was doing. Had he no control over face and body? Was he trying, albeit very clumsily, to convey impatience and disrespect? To me, Trump’s behavior was most strongly reminiscent of that of a small child who really, really has to go to the bathroom right now. But we know that having to go to the bathroom in the context of a debate is, Trumpwise, “disgusting,” so it couldn’t have been that.

    But a president needs control over facial expressions and bodily gestures: control projects adult authority and control, qualities a president must convey, domestically and globally, if he or she is to get respect. Otherwise, the president of the United States will swiftly become a figure of mirth, here and everywhere, and will not be taken seriously by anyone over the age of five.

    And, in a debate, a participant needs to understand and make use of the rules of debating. One is: Be nice to the moderator and courteous to your opponent. Do not interrupt or talk over. By obeying these simple rules a presidential debater shows the audience of potential voters that he or she can behave in a trustworthy manner and will not embarrass us.

    From the outset, Trump showed himself unable to do so. He repeatedly interrupted both Clinton and Holt and repeatedly talked over Clinton at length, even after being admonished many times by Holt not to do so. Not only did his behavior toward Clinton underscore the truth of charges of sexism and misogyny, they showed immaturity on Trump’s part. Children can’t wait, they need their turn now. Adults know that they need to wait their turn because that’s how social animals like us keep our societies working cooperatively. The president of the world’s #1 country who cannot control his impulses is a threat to the entire species, in the world we currently inhabit. (His musings on who should have and use nuclear weapons only underscore that concern.)

    And finally, he grumbled—hardly for the first time—that the moderator had not been “nice” to him (this from a man who had spent the prior 90 minutes being aggressively un-nice to the moderator). But again, he failed to grasp the simple rule: know your context. A debate is not a tea party: the moderator’s job is to be “tough,” not “nice.” If Trump found Holt’s behavior so not-nice that he felt obliged to comment on it, that should tell us two things: first, that Trump is (surprise!) astonishingly thin-skinned though blatantly rude. He can dish it out, but can’t take it. Second, that Trump cannot figure out the correct attitude and behavior for the role he is playing. He is an incompetent communicator and therefore not to be allowed to communicate for all of us.

    So, somewhat unusually for a presidential debate, this one taught its audience a lot of important lessons about one of the candidates. I can hardly wait for our next class.

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