On Monday night, the Commission on Presidential Debates unanimously approved a new rule for Thursday night’s final debate that will make it virtually impossible for Donald Trump to be, well, Donald Trump.
The rules goes like this: At the start of each new topic area, each candidate will have two minutes of uninterrupted time to talk. During that time, the opposing candidate’s microphone will be turned off entirely, making it impossible for them to interject during that time.
Which, well, makes sense after the first debate back in late September when Trump interrupted Biden – and moderator Chris Wallace – relentlessly, making the entire thing a spectacular failure.
The question the new rule prompts, however, is how the heck is Trump going to actually debate under the new rules? Dating back to the primary and general election debates in the 2016 campaign, Trump’s only real strategy appears to be interrupting with jabs – usually personal – against his opponent or opponents. His ability to stand and talk about issues for 120 seconds – or stand and listen as his opponents talk for an uninterrupted two minutes – is basically zero.
Consider this: Trump interrupted Biden or Wallace 128 times in the course of the 90-minute debate, according to a count kept by Slate’s Jeremy Stahl. Which is nuts! And Trump interrupted Hillary Clinton 51 times, again according to Stahl.
Constant interruption is best understood not as a thing that Trump sometimes does in debates but, essentially, as his entire debate strategy. Trump uses his non-stop interrupting to throw his opponent of their message, to distract from difficult topics for him, to bully his way through things.
The truth is that when he is forced into any semblance of an actual debate, Trump struggles mightily – as his lack of preparation and knowledge about the job is badly exposed.
I keep thinking back to a single moment during the 2016 primary campaign that illustrates all of this perfectly. It was a December 2015 Republican primary debate and conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt, one of the moderators, asked Trump about the “nuclear triad,” which refers to the three ways that the United States can deploy nuclear weapons (from airplanes, submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles.)
“We have to be extremely vigilant and extremely careful when it comes to nuclear. Nuclear changes the whole ballgame. … The biggest problem we have is nuclear – nuclear proliferation and having some maniac, having some madman go out and get a nuclear weapon. That’s in my opinion, that is the single biggest problem that our country faces right now.”
Trump’s answer will be familiar to anyone who has ever been called on in English class to answer a question about a book you haven’t read a word of. He clearly has NO idea what the “nuclear triad” is or refers to. So he just says some stuff about nuclear weapons like “the biggest problem we have is nuclear – nuclear proliferation and having some maniac, having some madman go out and get a nuclear weapon.”
We know from scads of reporting – in both the 2016 campaign and this one – that Trump does no real debate preparation. Instead, he brings a small group of people he likes into a room and sort of shoots the bull with them. (The last time Trump did this, a bunch of the people in the room – including him – wound up with Covid-19.) Which is a very different thing than the mock debates and studying that most serious candidates for president do in advance of a debate. Biden, for example, has stayed behind closed doors Monday and Tuesday as he prepares for Thursday’s debate.
Trump’s total lack of preparation – and demonstrated lack of interest in obtaining any in-depth knowledge about things like, well, nuclear weapons – means that his only option when he stands on the debate stage is to heckle his opponent (and the moderator.) Trump has lots of one-liners, interjections and snarky asides. Which work when he can constantly interrupt and ignore all the rules his campaign has previously agreed to.
And to be clear, he will still be able to do some of that in Thursday’s debate. While the mics will be muted during each candidates’ two-minute opening statement, they will be opened for the longer “discussion” portion of the issue at hand – meaning Trump will be free to interrupt as much as he can during that time.
But he will be able to interrupt far less often than in all of his previous debates. Which means he may actually have to, you know, engage on issues. Which has never been his strong suit.