We may have never seen presidential debates like those we are about to witness. In 2016, Donald Trump was still trying to play the old game, and was hampered by debating a woman just after the emergence of the misogynistic Access Hollywood tapes.
But the past four years have been a constant reinforcement of the idea that no matter what outrageous thing he says about or directly to someone, Trump will pay a small price compared with those he has disparaged. Almost a year later, the only lasting impression in much of the public’s mind about Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate is that he was acquitted and that Hunter Biden may have been up to something corrupt in Ukraine. This has left Trump ready, willing, and able to go full-out nasty.
I’ve produced reality shows for thirty years, and I believe Trump, who learned just about everything he knows about public life from the fourteen seasons he spent hosting The Apprentice on NBC, is now about to use some of the conflict-winning techniques we teach before every televised showdown.
Journalists should be ready to recognize these techniques, if only so as not to perpetuate them out of ignorance. And so I have put together a kind of guide.
Reality TV thrives on televised arguments, and we prepare extensively for them. I have coached hosts, participants, contestants, and guests as they approach a showdown. As producers, we know that our job is to convince each side that it will lose if it doesn’t come on strong, and to work both into a frenzy of anxiety and aggression.
Trump, a seasoned campaigner, understands as intimately as anyone can that an argument on TV is much different from an argument in person. It’s not about your opponent. It’s about convincing a third party—a desired bachelor, a businessman weighing your worth, or even the American people—that they like you better, that they think you’re funnier and sound more sure of yourself. The point-counterpoint and well-reasoned positions of a high school debate mean very little here.
We know he has already absorbed the first piece of advice I give any talent about to have a difficult televised argument: deny everything, admit nothing, and make counteraccusations. It’s always difficult to say, with any person, which parts of this behavior are deliberate, which are coached, and which are instinctive. But reporters can cover the technique as a technique without any fear of contradiction. It’s what he’s doing whenever he is accused of something that makes him look bad.
The second technique he is likely to use is another I instruct: attack all obvious faults that your opponent has not admitted to. The audience can always see all of our faults. Our physical and cosmetic issues, our insecurities, jealousies, angers, and dishonesties. The key to being liked on reality television is to “own” them—to admit and accept and be okay with whatever they are. Audiences value honesty about feelings and faults more than any other trait. You will be loved by the audience if you are brutally honest about your humanity—warts and all. We all have minor flaws. Own yours.
In a televised argument, owning your faults makes them bulletproof. Joe Biden freely admits that he struggled with a stutter as a child and that it still requires effort not to stammer. Because he owns it, attacking Biden for stuttering during the debates will not be effective for Trump. It would come off as mean.
Indeed, many of the Trump campaign’s attempts to define Biden have not worked very well so far. The label “Radical Liberal” just doesn’t seem to stick to such a mild-mannered and long-serving guy. “Destroyer of the Suburbs” doesn’t seem to be getting much traction either. Biden’s home state of Delaware is kind of one big suburb, and Joe just seems like a guy you might see mowing his lawn. The criticism that he’s infirm, senile—too old to do the job of president—seems to have the best chance of swaying people.
That attack has been blunted by Trump’s own struggles with his age. But a TV event debate—standing at the podium, walking and talking live, answering unknown questions quickly and clearly, and responding to direct attacks in real time—could be the perfect opportunity for Trump to win the vim-and-vigor case against Biden right at the last moment, in October, when voters are actually paying attention and ready to decide. He’s helped by the fact that Biden has not publicly owned up to the fact that his age is showing—and that he might have taken cosmetic steps to conceal that.
Trump will hope that by targeting this and other genuine but unacknowledged faults, he will make Biden look phony, stuck-up, or dishonest. Crucially for Trump, someone who identifies unowned faults in their opponent often comes off as a “truth teller” to the audience, rather than mean. I think this explains Trump supporters who say they like him because he’s not afraid to tell it like it is. And once you have scored a low blow with an attack on an unacknowledged true, minor fault, you can pile on a bunch of meatier false claims—since your opponent already seems dishonest to the audience.
The third technique I expect Trump to use is “the belittling character.” Instead of debating the person in front of you, with all their nuances, you create a character, almost cartoonish, and relentlessly deal with them as if they actually are that person, thereby creating just such an impression in the mind of the audience. This is, again, likely to be Trump branding Biden with senility.
The fourth technique is direct and extreme personal attack. On reality TV, if you try to be in any way polite or unhurtful, you are leaving yourself vulnerable to unanswered insult. Remember, after denying everything, you must level counteraccusations—shift from defense to offense.
This seems unnatural to many people who would never do such a thing in their real, personal lives. But this is a TV argument, not a dinner party. The rules of decorum do not hold.
The final technique I expect to see is Trump breaking all the agreed-upon debate rules. He will not feel any need to let the other person finish their thought before jumping in. In this way he will keep Biden off-balance even on topics he feels comfortable with. In general, when someone protests that you are breaking the rules, the audience will read it as the protester’s fear of looking bad. The protester will also come off as a rule-obsessed bureaucrat in the face of a maverick who cuts through the red tape.
Obviously Trump is not perfect and has visible vulnerabilities. I would coach Biden not to rise above the mud fight, as tempting, and perhaps as decent, as that might be. Because Trump absolutely does not own his foibles. He’s extremely sensitive about his appearance, and highlighting his vanity will both boil his blood and make him look very bad to an audience. If I were coaching Biden, “The $70,000 Comb-Over Cover-Up” would be fair game—especially if Trump goes low first.
He has, for some reason, never really been challenged face-to-face on his unowned faults the way he challenges others. It may seem distasteful, or like something has been lost from public life. But the televised debates are reality television, whether we want to admit it or not. And to pretend otherwise is to allow Trump to carry the day virtually unopposed.
TOP IMAGE: Photo by Joe Raedle/AFP/Getty Images