Missing the Point – To Debate or Not to Debate, That is the Question

Donald Trump is challenging Joe Biden to debate.  To quote from one of his Truth Social posts, “It is important for the Good of our County that Joe Biden and I Debate issues that are so vital to America, and the American people.”

Really?  Donald Trump wouldn’t have serious knowledge of an issue if he tripped over one of them.  And he couldn’t care less about the American people except that he needs them to send him money and vote him back into The White House.

Donald wants to debate, not because he hopes to crush his opponent with a dazzling display of intellect, subject knowledge, and his rapier argument skills.  No.  Donald is as dumb as he is nuts.  That the Republicans are following him like the leader of a heard of lemmings on their way to the edge of a cliff is striking and will be the subject matter of countless academic papers and discussions for the foreseeable future.  What Donald wants is exposure and an opportunity to belittle his opponent with falsehoods and middle-grade playground taunts.

Donald was way ahead in the primary polls, so why waste his time or risk embarrassing himself debating his primary election opponents.  With polls showing him running within the margin of error against Biden in the general election, he’s concluded that he needs the debates to help get himself elected.

If ever there was an unattractive candidate in every imaginable way, a person with no redeeming attributes, Donald is it.  He has been, for whatever reasons history will eventually conclude, the beneficiary of some broad-based societal angst amplified by the extraordinary communications technologies of our time.

Donald Trump isn’t clever.  He just happened to be in the right place at the right time for his particular brand of fraud and offensive behavior.  Unfortunately, his luck has run out.  Not even being re-elected President of the United States will save him.  It’s a reality that he’s struggling to ignore, but can’t.

He’s challenging Joe to debate him because it makes Donald seem like the fearless aggressor he fantasizes he is.  And because he’s run out of money, what with the judgments he owes, legal expenses, and dwindling campaign finance reserves from which he can beg, borrow, or steal.  Debates are, after all, free high-volume television advertising.

Donald debates the way he campaigns by selectively adopting his opponents’ programs and points of view, as if they were his that his opponent is copying, and by lying about his accomplishments and prior positions.  And that’s Joe’s problem and the basis for the title of this piece, “To date or not to debate?”  The question is, how can Joe successfully debate someone who is making it all up, whose style is to confuse rather than inform the viewer?

For Joe, agreeing to debate Donald Trump is not a simple decision.  No matter how skilled a debater Joe might be, but isn’t, dealing with Donald’s lies won’t be easy.  At the very least, Joe needs to insist that there can be no audience at the debating venue.  Just Joe, Donald and two or three neutral journalists asking questions.  Donald lives for the adulation of the crowd.  Without the audience’s reaction, he’ll be off his game.

Could the debate be structured so that every response, from either candidate, would be subject to an instant review by an independent panel for its accuracy?  An AI-powered “Truthometer” might be nice.  Maybe, but Donald would never agree to it, even if Joe would.  …It’s wishful thinking, but if such a process or technology were feasible in real-time, news services could use it on a regular basis to advise viewers watching political commercials, rallies, and interviews.

Wait a minute…  So, you don’t think such a truth technology is possible?  Well, let me recommend that you watch this video of comedian Steve Martin as a used car dealer.  It’s not exactly what I have mind, but you’ll get the point.

But what can Joe do when Donald lies?  Live debate doesn’t afford either of the participants the time and resources necessary to refute a lie.  In any case, it’s not clear that biased viewers would believe the refute however accurate it might be.  Both Joe and Donald are authority figures who have their followers who tend to believe whatever their favorite candidate says.

Just calling Donald out won’t work.  All Donald needs to do is claim that Joe is the one you can’t trust – for example, the way Donald has started telling people that it’s Joe who is the threat to Democracy.

Humor, according to many experts, is one option, but it’s hard to pull off.  You need to belittle your opponent just short of being mean or offending the audience, all while being funny about it.  It’s not easy for a professional comedian with perfect timing and difficult at best for ordinary folk like Joe Biden.  And then Joe takes the risk of being ridiculed himself by the barrage of adolescent mocking humor Donald will deploy.  It’s distracting and people will be watching to see how Joe reacts.

Two old men trying to be funny at each other’s expense is not a good look given the seriousness of the office for which they are running.  At best, Joe needs to be prepared with humorous quips for this or that statement Donald is likely to make, keep a positive attitude and not allow himself to appear exasperated or irritated.  It’s all about demeanor.  You want to be friendly, but mature, something Donald Trump is not.  Get under your opponent’s skin, which is easy to do in Donald’s case…  Frequently use of the term “loser” might help.  …while staying above the fray.

One article that I read by Dr. Richard Friedman who is a professor of clinical psychiatry talks about what George Lakoff, a cognitive scientist, calls a “truth sandwich” as an effective tool for countering a lie.

Without attempting to be overly explicit, let’s say your opponent in a political debate lies or makes an important statement, which is not true, although your opponent may think it is.  Assume that there is no opportunity to offer irrefutable evidence contradicting the lie.

Lakoff recommends a simple three-part response…  1.  State what you know to be the truth.  2.  Remind the audience of the lie your opponent has made.  3.  Restate the truth.  The “truth sandwich” places the lie between the top and bottom “buns of reality.”  (Personally, I’d have called it a “lie burger,” but what do I know?)

To quote from the Friedman article, “Research shows it,” the truth sandwich, “effectively corrects a falsehood, because people tend to remember the beginning and end of a statement, rather than what’s in the middle.”  Interesting, but I wouldn’t bet my campaign on it.

So, what should Joe do?  My advice would be to pass.  Don’t let Trump goad you into debating him.  There’s no real upside to it and plenty to lose, particularly in a close race.  Donald is under enormous pressure – what with all his legal and financial problems – to which he is not impervious.  Already there are signs that’s he beginning to fray at the edges.  My advice is for Joe to stay away from face-to-face confrontations and let Donald self-destruct.

Better to use your (Joe’s) financial advantage to produce carefully controlled commercials that can make your points, even ridicule your opponent without having to endure his sophomoric retorts.  Make him spend time and money he doesn’t have on expensive television commercials and rallies where he feels good, but doesn’t come across as Presidential.

Live television debating isn’t kind to old people.  Take the criticism you’ll receive for not debating in favor of exercising maximum control over your image and messaging.  A frustrated Donald Trump is good for your campaign.

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