Trump’s Smear-And-Scream Debate Strategy

This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.

This morning some of my friends were depressed. They texted me last night after the first debate between Trump and Biden as they were plunging into rage spirals, followed by fear, and arriving at depression. This just proves that Trump’s seemingly disastrous campaign strategy can still be effective for him, as it has been for his entire life.

The point of Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign is to muddy the waters, discourage enthusiasm, drag everyone down with him, and, ultimately, depress the vote. The GOP has used versions of this strategy — more or less — since the ’90s, but with Trump it comes naturally. If people are feeling depressed then that is by design. That’s what the last four years have been about. That’s what his campaign is about, that’s who he is. And he has a lifetime of experience to prove that, generally, it works. Good people get discouraged and throw up their hands. I know because I’ve employed the same tactics in a debate — in high school.

Back then, I was on team debate and woefully unprepared for my first tournament. I went into the school library and gathered the bare minimum of information. I’m talking about looking up the definition of words in the dictionary. It was pitiful. My teammate asked what we were going to do and I said simply, “we have nothing so we just have to attack.” These were parent debate judges. My logic — from observing politics — is if you shit the bed, you don’t clean it up … you smear it on the wall and blame your brother, even if it’s in your own bed. Be shameless. You’ll drag your brother down with you and you’ll both have to clean up the mess.

I won two out of the first three debates. My opponents were more prepared. They actually knew their stuff. I had nothing. I would just interrupt them, shake my head when they talked, roll my eyes at the judges like, “can you believe this person?” Now, I wasn’t as rude as Trump, but the strategy was still the same: Be shameless, don’t back down. The judges threw up their hands and gave me two out of three. My opponents were livid and confused. What happened? They had the facts, they had logic, they practiced poise. Debates were about truth, goddamnit!!

In the fourth debate, my opponents were two teenage girls from a private school. The judge was a nice white mom. So, I thought, a white woman should side with two white girls who actually did the work over two boys who had nothing. Right? My teammate asked me if “we should concede?” I grabbed a dictionary and pretended to study — it was a prop. When the debates started I spent most of the time looking at the mom-judge shaking my head when my opponent would list researched facts, like, “no … no … oh, my god … only an idiot would believe them … right?” I could see the judge weakening. She didn’t know what to believe. Eventually, my teammate gave away the game by pretty much admitting we didn’t have any facts. The judge barely gave the win … to our opponents. But at the end she apologized to … me. Me, who had been a factless, shameless bully. She apologized, she said, because she really liked my argument. (I had no argument.) But she went with my opponents because they had boxes of info they dragged in. Their props won out over mine. I realized that if I carried in boxes (or maybe had been a white boy) I would have won three out of four debates with no facts.

As a debater I was influenced by Al Franken’s book Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. The satirist and future senator broke down all the rules of right-wing talk radio. He laid out in specific detail the delusional worldview conservative politics was embracing in the 1990s, driven primarily by the growth of right-wing media. Franken’s hilarious polemic was a warning: these tactics have been incredibly effective, are presently effective, and will continue being effective until someone calls them out. (Most adults just laughed at the title.)

Chaos and shamelessness are his biggest weapons. These attributes have worked his entire life.

My takeaway from my first debate tournament was that I went 2-2 while entirely unprepared. As my teammate’s mom drove us home, I sullenly stared out the window. My teammate tried to cheer me up by spotting a billboard for an upcoming Hootie & the Blowfish concert … I was like Hootie and who?!? He told me I was a good debater and we should do this again. But I was done being unprepared and smearing people.

Why? We had been effective! I was being congratulated. Why would I be done with this approach?

Simple: I felt like shit afterward. Nothing was at stake, people’s lives weren’t going to be affected by our high school debate. But I felt awful conning those nice mom-and-dad judges into believing utter nonsense. I felt awful because I realized how easy it was to trick people. I felt drained because I realized shamelessness wins. Not always. But often. At the very least it wears people down to compromising with you. 2-2. This strategy has been effectively employed by the GOP my entire life. Make up facts, lie, get people to believe that both sides are liars. Wear down voters. Trump was more rude about it, but the tactic is still the same: shit the bed, smear the walls, and scream.

Did this strategy work for Trump? People often forget that, for campaigns, the point of the debate isn’t always to “win” the debate. It’s to win the election. In 2016 Trump lost all three debates to Hillary Clinton handily. She wiped the floor with him. But Trump didn’t care because if he could get enough working class voters to flip in certain areas and depress the vote among people of color, that would still, on election night, help him to win. And he did. He managed to reduce Clinton’s turnout among Latino and Black voters, and he managed to swing Obama voters in the Midwest. All it took was 80,000 voters in a few states to change Clinton’s inevitable victory into a stunning loss.

In 2020, Trump is going to lose every debate. The question is will he discourage enough people from voting who would go for Biden? The biggest problem for Trump the candidate is Trump the actual president. He has been a disaster. His policies helped kill 200,000 people, and it could be 300,000 by the end of this year. Trump damaged small businesses, wreaked havoc on American farms though a pointless trade war, and has not fulfilled any of his most memorable promises. On the plus side, high school–educated white voters in the middle of the country love a good racist dog whistle. He speaks to their smallness, fears, and suspicions.

Last night, he wasn’t trying to win me over — not trying to capture college-educated voters or people of color. He has surrendered those voting blocs a long time ago. Trump is now just trying to depress them by smearing the walls with his own fetid lies and using false equivalency to link Biden’s occasional misstep with Trump’s consistently horrible governance. Trump might win to his side the high school debate judge — people easily swayed by false confidence, attack-dog tactics, and cheap props. And, if he makes enough of a mess, perhaps he hopes everyone else will just be too depressed. Chaos and shamelessness are his biggest weapons. These attributes have worked his entire life. He’s hoping to pull out one more dark miracle by shrinking the American mind and poisoning our good will. He just might do it if we submit to hopelessness.


Aurin Squire is an award-winning playwright, reporter, and multimedia artist. He is a two-time recipient of the Lecomte du Nouy Prize from Lincoln Center and has received residencies at the Royal Court Theatre in London, Ars Nova, Lincoln Center Lab, National Black Theatre, the Dramatists Guild of America, and Brooklyn Arts Exchange.

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