Donald Trump’s history with town halls suggests Sunday night’s debate will be a disaster for him

Nothing to smile about.
Nothing to smile about.
Image: Reuters/Aaron P. Bernstein
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It’s hard to know what to expect from Trump at the second US presidential debate. Even though the reality-TV-star turned GOP nominee must improve on his first disastrous performance (and somehow do so while claiming to shun practice), the format on Sunday night (Oct. 9) will be completely different. It’s a town hall-style debate. Trump seldom does town halls. Even when his campaign sets one up, he tends to blow off the format and angrily deliver his stump speech instead.

When he does humor his handlers, the audiences are hand-picked, the questions are scripted, and the discussion revolves mainly around a chinwag with Sean Hannity, or another Trump-chummy media luminary. During the GOP primaries, Trump did take part in a CNN town hall debate. But with five competitors, he bided most his time mum on his stool.

What we’ll see on Sunday is bound to be very different. What happens when the moderators are neutral, the questions are unscripted, and the questioners aren’t hand-picked?

I happened to catch what seems like a useful preview of Trump’s performance in a similar setting, when I attended an unscripted town hall in Cincinnati in early March. What I witnessed there suggests Trump might flop even harder than he did at the first debate.

First off, empathy is even more clutch than usual at town halls. Think of Bill Clinton in the 1992 town hall debate. While George H.W. Bush stood woodenly on the stage and struggled to relate to questioners, Clinton ambled into the audience and regaled them with stories of his own challenges, connecting his life to theirs.

Trump doesn’t really do empathy. In Cincinnati, for instance, a woman began her question explaining that she feared her Navy Seal veteran husband would lose his health insurance. She hadn’t finished the question before Trump said:

A lot of people are in that same—they wanna retire they’re afraid that they’re not gonna have anything to go by, they think their insurance companies are going bust they think, a lot of, a lot of problems. Look what’s happened with the stock market going down. Did you get affected by that, by the stock market… going down?

As the woman fumbled for an answer, Trump continued:

In terms of values, you’ve been affected. Lots of people’ve been affected. So go ahead, what’s your question?

Woman: If you win, do you think we’ll be able to retire?

Trump: We’re gonna make this country so strong. We’re not gonna stand for losing $500 million dollars with China, for losing $58 million with Mexico, for losing hundreds with Japan….

And off Trump went on a rant about the US’s weakened military and its agreement to defend Japan from military attacks. Nothing on the government guaranteeing health insurance.

You could call this a classic move of any politician—to answer the question you want to have been asked, not the one you were actually asked. But that doesn’t really fly at town halls, when the challenge is to prove to voters that you care about them, not dodge their concerns.

In order to show concern, it helps to know a little about the subject they’re worried about. Otherwise, connecting can backfire—big-time.

This became clear in Cincinnati when Trump called on a nine-year-old boy, who asked what Trump would do for his education in the next four years. First, Trump responded by saying US enemies in Iraq have superior military equipment. Then he said:

We’re going to work very hard on education, just so you understand. Common Core is dead. Do you know what Common Core is? Most importantly, most important thing we can do in terms of education for you and your age we’re getting education out of Washington DC, run by the bureaucrats, and we’re gonna bring the education to the local area—you around this area? We’re gonna bring the education where your mother and your father and everybody else’s parents and uncles and—they they they love they love you. Do you think your parents love you? Huh? They love you. They run it with love, okay?…

He proceeded to bash Common Core a little longer before turning to the next question. The crowd stayed eerily quiet.

Another way to telegraph that you feel voters’ pain and want to do something about it is to avoid bullying them. Even in a crowd of supporters lobbing softballs, Trump couldn’t resist. The first question in the Cincinnati town hall came from a big guy who proclaimed that he loved Trump so much that he slept outside the community center overnight so he could be first in line. Instead of simply thanking his supporter, Trump asked why, if he was the first in line, he was seated in the second row. The man sat down, sheepish.

While it’s one thing to spout untruths at a rally or on Fox, it’s another entirely to lie to a voter’s face. That’s exactly what the candidate did when a man whose soldier son had been captured and killed in Iraq in 2004 challenged him, his voice shaking, on his comment that John McCain wasn’t a hero, because he’d been captured in the Vietnam War.

Father: ”I come here because you made a comment to John McCain that you don’t think that captured soldiers are heroes.”

“Oh no no no, I was. I never did that—you know that,” interjected Trump.

Of course, this all took place back in early March, when Trump had only been campaigning for president for eight months. It’s possible, if extremely unlikely, that Trump has been secretly practicing unscripted town halls since then, even while denying so in public. But Trump has seemed much busier riling up rallies, blanketing his preferred cable news shows, and blowing up Twitter. Sympathetic crowds, Matt Lauer, and Twitter followers have yet to ask Trump the unvarnished questions that real people have about his plans for America. For that, we’ll have to wait for Sunday night.