The Presidential Debate: In Conversation, Donald Trump’s Strategy Falls Apart

Monday night’s presidential debate seemed to boil down to just talking. Not what the politicians were talking about, though that is of course important; but instead how Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton conducted a conversation — with each other, with their moderator Lester Holt, and with the viewing public.

In terms of conversational skills, last night’s debate did not reflect well on Donald Trump. Vox noted that Clinton was interrupted 70 times during the debate; 51 of those times were from Trump. By contrast, Clinton interrupted Trump just 17 times. Clinton spoke slowly and carefully — so carefully that at times she was almost stilted. Trump seemed to leave off the idea of restraint just a few minutes into the debate, opting instead for a ranting bluster that quickly turned into hectoring his opponent. Both Clinton and Trump were prone to continue to talk through the other candidate’s interruptions, but while Clinton was oriented outwards, making her case for the audience, Trump was oriented towards Clinton — seemingly bent on convincing or berating her at all costs.

The result was a remarkable 90-minute televised portrait of how two very different candidates handle the same type of adversity — an adversity that career politicians choose to endure nearly every day of their lives. It is the condition of being forced to have a conversation with someone who does not agree with you, and especially in a democratic republic — with its necessary compromises and coalitions — it is the very essence of politics.

The evening was a measure of conversation. And there’s no question: Clinton won the debate. Not just because she was good; because she was the only one on that stage actually conversing.

Trump’s performance on stage reminded me of the linguistic process called turn-taking, in which young and developing minds learn the cadence of conversation before they actually learn how to say any words. It’s sub-verbal communication; nothing is necessarily being said, but even babies understand that there is a structure to a conversation that requires yielding the floor and waiting for a response. Indeed: Creating and continuing conversation is one of the things our brains are very best at doing, which is probably why we can learn the patterns of conversation before we can even talk.

I thought of this while watching Trump at the debates, because while I am no linguistics expert, it was interesting to observe that Trump exists in a conversational paradigm unlike everyone else’s. He interrupted Holt and Clinton constantly — jockeying for the right to speak and then, upon attaining it, frequently squandering it with defensive bluster. Transcripts of his remarks reveal logical jumps and dangling sentence fragments, such as this meandering response about attacks from Russian hackers: “I have a son. He’s 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it’s unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it’s hardly doable. But I will say, we are not doing the job we should be doing, but that’s true throughout our whole governmental society. We have so many things that we have to do better, Lester, and certainly cyber is one of them.”

While debating Clinton, Trump was not able to follow point with counterpoint, or to follow conjecture with evidence. He wasn’t really engaging in a give-and-take of information, but instead a theater where conversation was just another form of power to be seized. If he was badgering Clinton, he was even more dismissive to Holt, who he practically yelled at when the moderator corrected him (accurately) on what he had once said about Clinton. Trump may have felt, onstage, that by silencing Holt and talking over Clinton he was winning the conversation by looking presidential. But that was not at all the case for the viewing public.

To Trump’s credit, his bullying strategy has worked for him for months. At rallies, Trump pitched his message to best work the room; with cable news, Trump’s seemingly nonsensical statements maximized media attention in the ever-hungry 24-hour news cycle. Rather than make a strategy around argument, Trump built a strategy around the blunt force of personality.

But last night, his strategy’s limits became apparent. In a debate, there is no cheering audience (or there isn’t supposed to be, anyway). The moderator, technically impartial, is there to ask more questions, not to be won over. And Hillary Clinton, a consummate over-preparer, came with her own strategy against Trump — which was, essentially, to let him talk.

Clinton did not mince words with him, and she did not hog the conversation from him, either. But she still almost completely ran the tone and pace of the conversation — up to the point where she repeatedly was able to bait Trump into lashing out in defensiveness when she made a dig at his fortune or called his success into question. In his constant effort to one-up Clinton in the moment, Trump ended up saying some of the most regrettable things of his campaign — such as how not paying taxes was “smart” and “good business,” and that his statement to people of color on his insistence that Obama wasn’t born in America was simply “I say nothing.”

By comparison, Clinton came off as substantive and measured, a slightly lofty oasis of serenity opposite a powderkeg looking for a new opportunity to blow up. She could stand to be a bit more at ease in debating, and possibly, a little less smug, too. But given how difficult it has been for her to find purchase against Trump, it’s also hard to blame her for enjoying her debate success.

It is surprising, in this unpredictable and unprecedented election, to discover that a good old-fashioned debate between these two diametrically opposed candidates is so telling of the differences between the two. And yet in one-on-one split-screen, with no way out of the conversation for either of them — and with a lens trained on their face the entire time — Trump and Clinton were showcased side-by-side, in constant and revealing comparison.

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