Truth, temperament, and the Town Hall – lessons for the 2nd Presidential Debate

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are tightening their grips on the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations.

The most telling moments from the first presidential debate were the 3 minutes after it had ended.
A brave faced Donald stood away from the audience in an awkward Trump family tableau, clearly attempting to take away some positives from a debate which quickly became about himself. In contrast, Hillary with husband and daughter by her side partook in what seems to be a Clinton presidential tradition, by getting up close and personal with the audience. The beaming trio frantically shook hands and gabbed to the cohort of Democrats huddling at the front whilst the Trumps solemnly filed off stage. Here, writ large, is the reason Donald Trump should be worried about the next debate.

The town hall format of the 2nd presidential debate is an interaction between the candidates and the questions from undecided voters, punctuated with more questions from moderators. They are unpredictable, almost never straight forward, and the debate itself is notoriously revealing so far as the candidate’s personalities are concerned. Trump’s engagement in accusatory debate and the recent announcement of his intention to bring up the Monica Lewinsky scandal plays directly in to Hillary’s hands. “Join the debate by saying something crazy”, said Clinton, in what I suspect is a fairly accurate summation of many American’s perception of the Republican candidate.

Of course, Hillary is not without her foibles. Her doubtlessly rehearsed jibes and responses did little to dispel her image as a career politician automaton, though her town hall performance during the primaries does show that she is capable of singing without a hymn sheet. Even so, if Trump is willing to learn the lessons of his first debate, he will find that Hillary’s position may not be as strong as it appears.

The wealth of fact checkers from almost every major news outlet would suggest that the first debate was a heated policy exchange with statistics coming thick and fast. It was nothing of the sort. “Fact checkers get to work”, Hillary declared as yet another ISIS related allegation came her way. A shameless plug for her own website’s display of the facts told us that the Hillary campaign is keen to call out the factually slippery Donald Trump.

Their efforts are redundant. There is one thing that we know about the Trump campaign, and it is that they do not mind playing fast and loose with the facts, and this is to their advantage. The reason for the campaign’s success is not their accurate data, but their resonance with the truth from the perspective of a certain section of American society.

Donald Trump has captured the enthusiasm of supporters from a wide range of backgrounds, but it is in the increasingly squeezed Middle America where the core Trump supporter is found. They do not really care about the $2 ½ trillion discrepancy in Trump’s own estimates of how much money can be brought back from overseas businesses, neither does Hillary’s “Trumped up trickle down” turn of phrase have much meaning to them (nor, I suspect, to anyone else). What they know is the reality they are living in. Jobs in their skill range are scarce, wages have stagnated, and a once thriving middle class is seemingly in a period of managed decline. What they want is to be able to communicate their reality to their representatives, but more crucially, they need to be listened to.

So far, Trump has been an ally. He is one of the few willing to give some of the more controversial opinions of Middle America a platform. Whether it is his harsh appraisal of immigrants’ contribution to the economy or his proclamation that his tax cuts are “the biggest since Reagan”, Trump has evidently tapped in to the desires of these core supporters. Now Trump has given their concerns a platform, he needs to actually listen to them in order to give convincing and sincere answers. The less formal town hall debate format should make that an easy thing to do, so long as he refrains from tangential and “braggadocious” exchanges, which with Trump is easier said than done.

Although Hillary remains resolute in her support for investment in the middle class, she pales in comparison to Trump when it comes to embodying the thoughts and feelings of a group in American society which feels forgotten. She told the audience of New York’s Hofstra University how her father was a small businessman who printed drapery fabrics, in contrast to the millionaire beginnings of Trump, going on to say “the more we can do for the middle class the more we can invest in you, your education, your skills, your future, the better we will be off and the better we’ll grow”.

Her lower-middle class credentials butter no parsnips. They do not change the fact that she is chronically establishment. The traps she set for Trump worked a treat, but if she wants to succeed in the town hall she needs to focus on making her policies meaningful to ordinary Americans by addressing the public’s questions in an accessible and personal way, and at least try to shed that big government skin.

I’m not quite sure what a “winning temperament” is, but Trump insists he has it. To him I imagine it involves persistence, opportunism, ruthlessness – the sort of buzz words he might have found on an application to The Apprentice, before he was fired for his remarks about Mexican immigrants. If the first debate is anything to go by, it also involves an unhealthy level of hubris. On the 9th, Trump will do well to prevent further inflation of his ego, partly to not alienate the undecided voters whose biggest hesitance to him is his personality, but mostly so he can fit through the door of the auditorium.


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