2015 Archives

How in the world do you debate Donald Trump? Here’s what the experts prescribe.


The following is from the August 6, 2015, edition of The Washington Post. Ben Voth, director of Debate and associate professor of Communication at SMU, provided expertise for this story. He is also an adviser for the Bush Institute and a fellow for the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation.

August 6, 2015

By Janell Ross

Donald Trump is an unusual presence on the presidential debate stage. And it's not just because he's a businessman and untested politician who happens to be in the lead. It's also because he's, well, Donald Trump. His rhetorical devices, use of hyperbole, looseness with the facts and bravado simply cannot be compared to any recent presidential hopefuls.

The Fix checked in this week with several debate coaches, political communication experts and rhetoric experts to see what they would advise for Trump -- oh, and the other nine men on stage tonight who have to face him.

Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.

The 2 big questions:

1. How would you describe Trump's style? 

VOTH: Trump is a bi-product of an uncivil society. Although, I should be clear and also say: This is not new. We used to shoot each other with pistols at dawn; that was a normal thing to do to resolve a dispute. Now that would be considered insane. But his style -- it’s very extemporaneous and candid and, at many moments, it’s coarse.

It's fairly deliberately abrasive and trying to cause some sparks to fly, and I think connecting to a deep cycle of populism the American public has cyclically been drawn into.

2. How should other candidates handle The Donald?

VOTHTrump has some advantages in being the no-holds-barred speaker and will possibly score what I call some "public resentment" points. We're talking about the viewer who will hear his unconventional way of talking about policy and think, 'Yeah, yeah. That’s what I would have said.' Next to Trump, someone like Rubio, a more traditional candidate and senator, is going to be more boxed in.

Of course, all of these people must know that they need to step up and try to stand out and outshine Trump, because he has become this runaway sensation in the polls. So, other candidates would be wise to identify their biggest difference or disagreement with Trump and play that up. The challenge is that they are actually going to have emulate his straight-shooter style a bit while also looking presidential.

Read the full story.

Related Links:


Find an Expert