Donald Trump Has Only One Debate Mode: Bullying

7 minute read

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Like most bullies, Donald Trump is a deeply insecure man. You can see it at moments of tremendous consequence and those where the stakes are clear only in his own mind. It’s apparent whenever anyone dares to challenge him with questions he cannot simply spin away with his razzle-dazzle showmanship. And when he feels backed into a corner, there’s a good chance he will lash out with every ounce of viciousness held in reserve, counting on the shock to overtake substance. It’s how, either during past debates or soon after less-than-stellar ones, Trump spoke openly about Hillary Clinton’s bathroom rituals, moderator Megyn Kelly’s reproductive system, and even the size of his own genitalia.

Because if everyone else is diminished in perceived standing, that only stands to build up the foul-mouthed Trump by comparison. Trump doesn’t have to win any part of the arguments if everyone else has already lost them just by participating.

It’s been more than eight years since Trump first set foot on a debate stage as a presidential candidate. Through the slog of the 2016 primary, to one-on-one matchups with a former Secretary of State and a former Vice President, Trump’s behavior has veered from playful and rakish to angry and unhinged. But the general throughline—beyond the perpetual lying—has been his inclination to retreat to bullying whenever he feels even remotely threatened. This is the Trump that uses his precious little debate time to call Hillary Clinton “a nasty woman,” and “the devil,” or belittle Joe Biden with jabs like “you graduated either the lowest or almost the lowest in your class.”

And it’s the Trump we are likely to see at least glimpses of on Thursday. The former President has been bragging about his indifference to preparing for the evening, telling audiences that Biden has holed-up in a log cabin to rest up, is loaded up on performance-enhancing drugs, and getting favorable treatment already from debate moderators with CNN. (Biden is at the presidential retreat of Camp David in Maryland and has shown no indications of juicing or winning help from a network who negotiated the debate terms with reps from both campaigns.) Trump is trying to bully Biden even before the studio lights go up. Which is what Trump has done with shocking consistency, treating these hallowed events like jam sessions where he riffs on themes and variations of his meandering rally monologues, throwing rivals for a loop.

As a first-time candidate in the 2016 cycle, he barely engaged in any debate prep. Instead aides were tasked with making him feel comfortable. After consistent schedule changes to strike formal prep from the books, his campaign team essentially had to trick Trump into doing debate prep in small bursts, occasionally over lunch—until he caught onto what was happening. The goal, according to various memoirs and numerous deft books about the era, was to keep Trump happy because a cranky candidate was one who felt insecure and could say anything.

That was what arguably “worked” for Trump for a long time, as millions of viewers tuned into the debates in 2016 to see what wild things Trump would say next. 

When it came time to face Clinton in that cycle’s head-to-head debates, Trump reached for everything in a bully’s back pocket to try to intimidate her—including invading her physical space, an experience every woman watching immediately recognized for what it was. He also tried to bring women who had alleged sexual relationships with former President Bill Clinton into the debate hall. (They were barred.) His vow to jail the former Secretary of State for some never-fully-explained crimes drew mild horror. Clinton’s demolition of Trump’s house of cards was devastating and his responses were disasters by objective standards of decorum. 

Yet Trump was still the victor on Election Day, a reminder that “winning” or “losing” a debate doesn’t always correspond with how voters ultimately behave.

Four years later, as a President struggling to guide the country through a pandemic, Trump acquiesced to a semblance of debate prep before facing Joe Biden. Still, he did just about everything he could to dodge the sessions in which his sparring partner, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, was hammering him and making him stammer. (In an only-in-Trump World twist, Christie would contract Covid-19 during one such visit to D.C.; Christie said it was certainly from Trump.)

Ultimately, per Michael C. Bender’s book about the 2020 campaign, Trump joined 11 debate prep sessions, although aides were perpetually frustrated that the boss was spending more time on his golf courses than in tutorials. They also were not sure that Trump fully appreciated their opponent or the frustration of voters who didn’t spend hours in line to attend his super-spreader rallies.

Trump’s first debate with Biden was ultimately seen through a belligerent Trump’s constant interruptions, and Biden’s now infamous plea to the President: “Will you shut up, man?” This was also the debate where Trump, pressed to denounce white supremacists and military groups, responded with, “Proud Boys—stand back and stand by.” 

Days later, Trump disclosed he had Covid. (A former White House aide later claimed that Trump had tested positive ahead of the debate and the forum’s moderator openly theorized that Trump brought the virus into the studio.) For safety’s sake, organizers proposed turning the second debate of that year into a virtual one. Trump refused to participate and, instead, Trump and Biden held dueling town hall-style meetings. During his, Trump tried to interrupt and cower NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie. The skilled anchor and former white-collar litigator was having none of it, boxing Trump into a corner when he refused to condemn conspiracy theories he had re-upped using what was then Twitter. It was a signal that Trump, when confronted with a fast pace, digs in and denies—often to his detriment.

Finally, during their second debate—the last time the two men have spoken to one another was that evening in October of 2020—things seemed to smooth out. (A mute button did a lot of the heavy lifting to force a wait-your-turn dynamic; it will return on Thursday.) Trump finally took the task seriously and gave answers that may have helped ease the nerves of skittish GOP voters and swayed some undecided independents. But that final debate was on Oct. 22, after 40 million Americans had already cast their ballots, a point advisers to the Trump campaign still bemoan. Thursday’s debate, on the other hand, is coming before either man officially becomes the nominee.

The mutual enmity between the current president and his predecessor will naturally color the tone and substance of whatever unfolds Thursday evening in an Atlanta TV studio. The two oldest nominees in U.S. history are also some of the most dissimilar contenders for another four years in a job both have now done. What remains unknown is if Trump realizes just how much he has already accomplished in politics and decides to ditch the chip on his shoulder. It would be welcome, though completely disorienting, if Trump were to treat Biden like a worthy equal, but the schoolyard snarl is kind of Trump’s established default. Even so, it is never too late to grow up.

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