Sunday night is on the horizon. Perhaps you’re tempted to skip the second presidential debate and watch the second HBO episode of “Westworld.” But if you’re truly pining for a spectacle where a humanlike figure tries to walk and talk and emote like a normal person, tune in Donald Trump.
The “town hall” format will be a major challenge; how he performs – it’s about his ‘tude and his body language, not just about what he says – may well determine whether he still has a realistic shot at winning the election. He and Hillary Clinton will be placed in close proximity to real people (undecided voters vetted by Gallup) who will ask questions about everyday policy stuff that affects their real lives.
Unlike Clinton – who has faced off with voters in small settings ever since she embarked on a “listening tour” prior to her first Senate bid 16 years ago; who’s far better going one on one than speechifying in big settings – Trump has no experience exuding empathy and feeling the pain of the Lilliputians he has long glimpsed from his gliding limo.
This won’t be like one of his rallies, where he typically serves up slop to bedazzled naifs. The town hall format will require him to behave, to tame his inner beast, to talk rationally about stuff that he frankly knows little about. Imagine if someone asks him something like this: “Mr. Trump, I get my health coverage from Obamacare. It’s not perfect, I’ve got my complaints about it, but you’ve said you want to get rid of it and replace it with something ‘terrific.’ Can you please be a lot more specific?”
Or perhaps he’ll get a question like this (as envisioned by Republican strategist-commentator Matt Lewis): “Mr. Trump, I work two jobs just to make ends meet. Last year, I paid thousands of dollars in taxes. But I just found out that you haven’t paid any for decades. Why should I vote for someone who isn’t paying his fair share, and why won’t you release your tax records?”
He can’t go ape on these people. He can’t afford to act defensive. He can’t dare to interrupt them. He can’t dodge their queries by changing the subject to Monica Lewinsky or Benghazi or the other red-meat staples that his rally-goers gleefully guzzle. Matt Lewis, the aforementioned Republican, openly wonders, “What are the odds that some civilian emerges from this town hall as a Khizr Khan…that Trump spends a week unwisely attacking? For betting folks, I’ll give it at least 50-50 odds.”
Lewis goes further: “His style of campaigning, which involves holding court from on high…has done little to prepare him for talking to regular people, mich less tolerating their whiny questions. Trump’s image as an alpha male who doesn’t emote may play well in a boardroom, but it’s exactly the wrong recipe for success” in a town hall debate. And he hasn’t prepped for it anyway; last night in New Hampshire, the best brain said: “Forget debate prep. I mean, give me a break.”
Granted, Clinton is likely to be challenged as well. Somebody could ask her about the emails. Co-hosts Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper will pose questions as well; Raddatz, a foreign policy specialist, could try to nail her on the Libya invasion. Raddatz or Cooper could ask her to explain why she was for the Trans-Pacific trade deal before she was against it. And a working-class citizen who lost a factory job could ask Clinton why voters should support any Democrat, given the exodus of factory jobs in an era when Democrats have held the White House for 16 of 24 years.
Clinton will need to give substantive answers. But this format is primarily about stagecraft, about which candidate stays cool and connects best with the live audience. And she’ll undoubtedly seek to disconnect Trump by needling him with little digs that are threaded into her substantive answers.
Expect her to poke him about all kinds of stuff (the list is endless): not paying taxes after losing nearly a billion dollars in one year, using Trump Foundation charitable money to settle his business lawsuits, tweeting about a beauty queen’s weight at 3 in the morning, telling a Nevada TV guy the other day that he has insulted women only for the purpose of “entertainment,” kissing up to Vladimir Putin even though Mike Pence insists that Putin is a bad actor. Which could prompt Clinton to ask: Can America afford to send such mixed signals to Russia? And isn’t it amazing that Trump’s own running mate repeatedly refused to defend him during the veep debate?
In other words, Clinton will try to get Trump to lose his mind, dump the empathy effort, and exhibit his despicable self in the worst possible setting at the worst possible time.
Hey, perhaps he’ll surprise us with 90 minutes of impulse control. On the other hand, he might be compelled to field a rude question from someone who’s fat. That would be his ultimate test.