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When Donald Trump first exploded on the political scene, he was an unpredictable rule breaker and neither the news media nor anyone else knew how to handle him. But now, we’ve got a much better idea of what makes Trump tick.
First, the Lincoln Project has proved that while President Trump appears formidable, he’s really just a creature of instinct who’s actually both predictable and unable to defend his weak spots once you find them. Pull the right string, and Trump will dance like a cheap marionette and about as gracefully.
Second, as we’ve seen in numerous interviews and a recent disastrous town hall, Trump has a very shallow comfort zone and is quickly out of his depth once he loses control of an interaction. The more you let him talk, especially under pressure, the deeper he will dig his hole. He has even made up what appear to be entirely new policies on the fly to get out of answering an uncomfortable question.
Reduce Trump to apoplexy
Finally, Trump thrives on anger and conflict. There is no margin in getting into a name-calling match with him. He melts down in the face of pity and laughter, however, and refusing to engage will infuriate him.
Rope-a-dope isn’t just for boxing. Sometimes, it’s an effective debate strategy, too. If Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden puts all these pieces together, he has an excellent chance of reducing President Trump to apoplexy.
The first rule is to never rise to the bait and trade insult for insult. Biden’s best tactic is to always be the adult in the room. The first time Trump gets nasty, which will probably be in the first 10 minutes since nasty is Trump’s go-to move, Biden should look directly into the camera and calmly explain, “If insults are what you want from a president, I’m not your candidate. I’m not here to trade insults with President Trump. I’m here to talk about the issues that matter to you, like how we are going to dig out of the coronavirus mess that President Trump has left us in. So let me use my remaining time to talk about that.”
When Trump interrupts, as he inevitably will, Biden should resist the natural urge to talk over him. Instead, after Trump has exhausted himself, Biden should shake his head ruefully and say, “There he goes again,” and then get back to the point he was trying to make when interrupted.
There is the idea out there that forcefully making your point is the key to winning a presidential debate, but that’s not the same thing as being unable to control yourself. Biden’s campaign is based around him being calm, rational, and a healer. He doesn’t win by being more pugnacious than Trump. He wins by being the reasonable adult handling the angry toddler.
Finally, trying to fact-check President Trump is a losing game. As we saw in his town hall meeting, he can make things up faster than anyone can possibly correct him. But there is a more effective strategy that Biden can employ: He can concern-troll the president.
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When Trump claims, for example, that Biden wants to defund the police, Biden should turn to the camera and say, “Folks, we have a big problem here. It isn’t that Donald Trump lies all the time. It’s that he genuinely believes his lies are true. I am on record multiple times as being against defunding the police.
"Chris Wallace, our moderator, has pointed that out to him personally, on camera. But Donald Trump still believes it. We have someone sitting in the White House who is so confused that he can’t tell truth from fiction. He does this all the time. I’m afraid we’re likely to see several other examples of the president’s confusion tonight. I am deeply worried about him and I’m deeply worried about this country as long as he is sitting in the Oval Office trying to make decisions.”
Ignoring facts on COVID and his taxes
Trump’s greatest, deepest fear is not being taken seriously, so he won’t enjoy having his attacks dismissed like this. Along the same lines, if Wallace brings up Trump's tax returns, Biden should say, “Look, I don’t blame President Trump for being embarrassed about his tax returns, I would be too, if I were him. But here’s the deal. This is part of a pattern of Trump playing pretend and refusing to face facts.
"Despite six bankruptcies and a taxable income that would qualify him for food stamps, I think President Trump genuinely believes he’s some sort of great businessman, just like he gives himself an A+ for handling the coronavirus pandemic even though we’ve got more than 200,000 dead Americans and rising infection rates. This kind of detachment from reality is killing America and it has to stop.” There is nothing Joe Biden could possibly say more calculated to rattle the president.
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Biden isn’t actually debating Trump on Tuesday night. There are few if any people in America who are trying to choose between the Trump agenda and the Biden agenda. And certainly, no one is going to vote for Biden because he shows he can be just as mean and nasty to Trump as Trump is to him.
There are, however, millions of people trying to decide what kind of president Biden would be and whether they are afraid of him. If Biden can destroy Trump without attacking Trump’s supporters in the process, this election is all over but the voting. And the best way to do that is to let Donald Trump do it himself.
Chris Truax, an appellate lawyer in San Diego and CEO of CertifiedVoter.com, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Presidential debate: Joe Biden can beat Donald Trump by being an adult