How Trump Could “Win” a Debate Without Knowing Any Policy

by Benjamin Studebaker

Donald Trump is taking a hit in the polls after his first debate performance, in which he spent a lot of time defending his character and offering long-winded answers in which he pretended he knew what he was talking about when he very clearly didn’t. Many people have rightly pointed out that Trump came across as under-prepared, but they’re not putting the emphasis in the right place. While it’s true that Trump doesn’t know anything about policy, it was not his lack of preparation on policy that got him in trouble. Instead he got hurt because he was inadequately prepared to do what he is generally pretty good at–avoiding uncomfortable questions and criticisms by constantly attacking whoever is available as a target. So today I’d like to give Trump a little back-handed advice–here’s how Trump can get the media to give him a win when he clearly doesn’t know anything.

Trump cannot beat Hillary Clinton at her own game. He is never going to be better prepared to sound like he knows what he’s talking about on policy. That takes a lot of practice and effort, and Trump doesn’t have the attention span to work that hard. Let’s use a sports metaphor–remember Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant?

Shaq was a big, powerful player who used his raw physicality to impose his will. Kobe was a finesse player who spent a lot of time in the gym training to learn new moves and get better. During the offseason, Shaq would party and have a good time, knowing that even if he started the season a bit out of shape, he was still the biggest thing around and could shunt smaller players about.  Kobe would work and work and work some more. Shaq could never hit free throws, much less three point shots. If you put Shaq and Kobe in a free throw or three point contest, Shaq would lose badly and it would be very embarrassing. But if you had them play one on one? Shaq could push Kobe all over the floor and dunk on him again and again.

In presidential debates, policy is like shooting free throws. You have to put in a lot of work to get good at policy. But if you’re really good at attacking and you know how to dominate the space, you’ll still miss the free throws, but people won’t care. They’ll be too busy watching the highlights of you dunking on that finesse player.

Of course, to be a good president, you have to know policy. But you don’t have to be a good president to win a presidential debate. A good performance in a presidential debate has nothing to do with running the country and doesn’t require anything remotely similar to the same skill set.

Let’s take a look at an exchange Trump did well in–the early argument about trade:

TRUMP: And all you have to do is look at Michigan and look at Ohio and look at all of these places where so many of their jobs and their companies are just leaving, they’re gone.

And, Hillary, I’d just ask you this. You’ve been doing this for 30 years. Why are you just thinking about these solutions right now? For 30 years, you’ve been doing it, and now you’re just starting to think of solutions.

CLINTON: Well, actually…

TRUMP: I will bring — excuse me. I will bring back jobs. You can’t bring back jobs.

CLINTON: Well, actually, I have thought about this quite a bit.

TRUMP: Yeah, for 30 years.

CLINTON: And I have — well, not quite that long. I think my husband did a pretty good job in the 1990s. I think a lot about what worked and how we can make it work again…

TRUMP: Well, he approved NAFTA…


CLINTON: … million new jobs, a balanced budget…

TRUMP: He approved NAFTA, which is the single worst trade deal ever approved in this country.

CLINTON: Incomes went up for everybody. Manufacturing jobs went up also in the 1990s, if we’re actually going to look at the facts.

When I was in the Senate, I had a number of trade deals that came before me, and I held them all to the same test. Will they create jobs in America? Will they raise incomes in America? And are they good for our national security? Some of them I voted for. The biggest one, a multinational one known as CAFTA, I voted against. And because I hold the same standards as I look at all of these trade deals.

But let’s not assume that trade is the only challenge we have in the economy. I think it is a part of it, and I’ve said what I’m going to do. I’m going to have a special prosecutor. We’re going to enforce the trade deals we have, and we’re going to hold people accountable.

When I was secretary of state, we actually increased American exports globally 30 percent. We increased them to China 50 percent. So I know how to really work to get new jobs and to get exports that helped to create more new jobs.

HOLT: Very quickly…

TRUMP: But you haven’t done it in 30 years or 26 years or any number you want to…

CLINTON: Well, I’ve been a senator, Donald…

TRUMP: You haven’t done it. You haven’t done it.

CLINTON: And I have been a secretary of state…

TRUMP: Excuse me.

CLINTON: And I have done a lot…

TRUMP: Your husband signed NAFTA, which was one of the worst things that ever happened to the manufacturing industry.

CLINTON: Well, that’s your opinion. That is your opinion.

TRUMP: You go to New England, you go to Ohio, Pennsylvania, you go anywhere you want, Secretary Clinton, and you will see devastation where manufacture is down 30, 40, sometimes 50 percent. NAFTA is the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere, but certainly ever signed in this country.

And now you want to approve Trans-Pacific Partnership. You were totally in favor of it. Then you heard what I was saying, how bad it is, and you said, I can’t win that debate. But you know that if you did win, you would approve that, and that will be almost as bad as NAFTA. Nothing will ever top NAFTA.

CLINTON: Well, that is just not accurate. I was against it once it was finally negotiated and the terms were laid out. I wrote about that in…

TRUMP: You called it the gold standard.


TRUMP: You called it the gold standard of trade deals. You said it’s the finest deal you’ve ever seen.


TRUMP: And then you heard what I said about it, and all of a sudden you were against it.

CLINTON: Well, Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts. The facts are — I did say I hoped it would be a good deal, but when it was negotiated…


CLINTON: … which I was not responsible for, I concluded it wasn’t. I wrote about that in my book…

TRUMP: So is it President Obama’s fault?

CLINTON: … before you even announced.

TRUMP: Is it President Obama’s fault?

CLINTON: Look, there are differences…

TRUMP: Secretary, is it President Obama’s fault?

CLINTON: There are…

TRUMP: Because he’s pushing it.

CLINTON: There are different views about what’s good for our country, our economy, and our leadership in the world.

The trick in this exchange is that Trump just keeps attacking, again and again and again. Whatever Clinton says is used to fuel another attack. And the core of what’s being said is very simple. We can condense it down:

TRUMP: Thinks are bad. (ATTACK)

CLINTON: I know how to make them better. My husband did well. (DEFENSE)

TRUMP: He made things bad (NAFTA). (ATTACK)

CLINTON: That’s your opinion. (DISMISSAL)

TRUMP: You want to do the same thing (TPP) and make it worse. (ATTACK)


TRUMP: You said TPP was the gold standard. (ATTACK)

CLINTON: No I didn’t. (DENIAL)

TRUMP: Obama wants to do it. Is he wrong? (ATTACK)

CLINTON: There are different views. (DEFLECTION)

Notice how Trump doesn’t have to know anything about trade policy to do this. All he has to do is keep saying that Clinton and the Democrats have done bad things and want to do more bad things. He doesn’t have to explain in any detail how these things or bad or justify his account of how they’re bad in any way. Many people believe, rightly or wrongly, that these trade deals are bad, and all Trump needs to do is remind those people that he agrees and she doesn’t–trade deals are often bad, Clinton likes bad trade deals, Clinton is bad, Trump dislikes bad trade deals, Trump is good.

A lot of the things that Trump says about trade are heavily disputed by economists, but this is an area where Trump’s position is different from being based on easily demonstrably false claims. When the New York Times challenges Trump’s claim that China is a currency manipulator, it has to spend 1300 words laying out an argument that explains contextually what China has done with its currency over the past 10 years. The explanation of what’s wrong with what Trump is saying is not immediately reducible to “he’s lying and this is what’s not true”. What’s more, that’s just one of the many claims Trump will make in a relatively short answer about trade. In any given paragraph of Trump talking about trade there are generally several claims all of which are disputed to varying degrees. This gives Clinton a bad choice–she can try to defend herself, wasting all of her time going into a lengthy policy explanation of what she believes is wrong with what Trump is saying, or she can try to move the conversation to another topic. If she does the former, she risks drawing more attention to NAFTA and her own history with TPP, and while there may be some experts who will agree with her, many will not and she will create a media narrative that is a loser for her. So she can’t defend, she has no choice but to try to move the conversation, and each time she tries to move it Trump interrupts her and attacks again.

First she tries to move it to her husband’s economic record, then she tries to move it to her book and her plan. The goal is to get away from trade and move over to the economy as a broader topic, where she feels she is stronger. The more he continues to attack and the more she refuses to defend and tries to run away, the stronger he looks.

This is how Trump needs to handle everything if he wants to win. He has to constantly attack and never get bogged down in policy details. If Shaq and Kobe are playing one on one, Kobe will back off of Shaq and dare him to take the outside shot, all the time jawing about how Shaq can’t shoot, hoping to bait him into playing to Kobe’s strengths. In the same way, Clinton tries to get Trump away from his attacking strategy, hoping to lure him into defending his character or his policy knowledge, both things he can’t do well. Clinton knows that Trump can be baited, and she baits him, and friendly moderators help her do it.

Here’s an example of Clinton baiting Trump and Trump taking the metaphorical three pointer. Watch him take an issue that should be a winner for him–Iraq–and flub it completely:

HOLT: You mention ISIS, and we think of ISIS certainly as over there, but there are American citizens who have been inspired to commit acts of terror on American soil, the latest incident, of course, the bombings we just saw in New York and New Jersey, the knife attack at a mall in Minnesota, in the last year, deadly attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando. I’ll ask this to both of you. Tell us specifically how you would prevent homegrown attacks by American citizens, Mr. Trump?

TRUMP: Well, first I have to say one thing, very important. Secretary Clinton is talking about taking out ISIS. “We will take out ISIS.” Well, President Obama and Secretary Clinton created a vacuum the way they got out of Iraq, because they got out — what, they shouldn’t have been in, but once they got in, the way they got out was a disaster. And ISIS was formed.

So she talks about taking them out. She’s been doing it a long time. She’s been trying to take them out for a long time. But they wouldn’t have even been formed if they left some troops behind, like 10,000 or maybe something more than that. And then you wouldn’t have had them.

Or, as I’ve been saying for a long time, and I think you’ll agree, because I said it to you once, had we taken the oil — and we should have taken the oil — ISIS would not have been able to form either, because the oil was their primary source of income. And now they have the oil all over the place, including the oil — a lot of the oil in Libya, which was another one of her disasters.

HOLT: Secretary Clinton?

CLINTON: Well, I hope the fact-checkers are turning up the volume and really working hard.Donald supported the invasion of Iraq.

TRUMP: Wrong.

CLINTON: That is absolutely proved over and over again.

TRUMP: Wrong. Wrong.

CLINTON: He actually advocated for the actions we took in Libya and urged that Gadhafi be taken out, after actually doing some business with him one time.

CLINTON: But the larger point — and he says this constantly — is George W. Bush made the agreement about when American troops would leave Iraq, not Barack Obama.

And the only way that American troops could have stayed in Iraq is to get an agreement from the then-Iraqi government that would have protected our troops, and the Iraqi government would not give that.

But let’s talk about the question you asked, Lester. The question you asked is, what do we do here in the United States? That’s the most important part of this. How do we prevent attacks? How do we protect our people?

And I think we’ve got to have an intelligence surge, where we are looking for every scrap of information. I was so proud of law enforcement in New York, in Minnesota, in New Jersey. You know, they responded so quickly, so professionally to the attacks that occurred by Rahami. And they brought him down. And we may find out more information because he is still alive, which may prove to be an intelligence benefit.

So we’ve got to do everything we can to vacuum up intelligence from Europe, from the Middle East. That means we’ve got to work more closely with our allies, and that’s something that Donald has been very dismissive of.

We’re working with NATO, the longest military alliance in the history of the world, to really turn our attention to terrorism. We’re working with our friends in the Middle East, many of which, as you know, are Muslim majority nations. Donald has consistently insulted Muslims abroad, Muslims at home, when we need to be cooperating with Muslim nations and with the American Muslim community.

They’re on the front lines. They can provide information to us that we might not get anywhere else. They need to have close working cooperation with law enforcement in these communities, not be alienated and pushed away as some of Donald’s rhetoric, unfortunately, has led to.

HOLT: Mr. Trump…

TRUMP: Well, I have to respond.

HOLT: Please respond.

TRUMP: The secretary said very strongly about working with — we’ve been working with them for many years, and we have the greatest mess anyone’s ever seen. You look at the Middle East, it’s a total mess. Under your direction, to a large extent.

But you look at the Middle East, you started the Iran deal, that’s another beauty where you have a country that was ready to fall, I mean, they were doing so badly. They were choking on the sanctions. And now they’re going to be actually probably a major power at some point pretty soon, the way they’re going.

But when you look at NATO, I was asked on a major show, what do you think of NATO? And you have to understand, I’m a businessperson. I did really well. But I have common sense. And I said, well, I’ll tell you. I haven’t given lots of thought to NATO. But two things.

Number one, the 28 countries of NATO, many of them aren’t paying their fair share. Number two — and that bothers me, because we should be asking — we’re defending them, and they should at least be paying us what they’re supposed to be paying by treaty and contract.

And, number two, I said, and very strongly, NATO could be obsolete, because — and I was very strong on this, and it was actually covered very accurately in the New York Times, which is unusual for the New York Times, to be honest — but I said, they do not focus on terror. And I was very strong. And I said it numerous times.

And about four months ago, I read on the front page of the Wall Street Journal that NATO is opening up a major terror division. And I think that’s great. And I think we should get — because we pay approximately 73 percent of the cost of NATO. It’s a lot of money to protect other people. But I’m all for NATO. But I said they have to focus on terror, also.

And they’re going to do that. And that was — believe me — I’m sure I’m not going to get credit for it — but that was largely because of what I was saying and my criticism of NATO.

I think we have to get NATO to go into the Middle East with us, in addition to surrounding nations, and we have to knock the hell out of ISIS, and we have to do it fast, when ISIS formed in this vacuum created by Barack Obama and Secretary Clinton. And believe me, you were the ones that took out the troops. Not only that, you named the day. They couldn’t believe it. They sat back probably and said, I can’t believe it. They said…

CLINTON: Lester, we’ve covered…

TRUMP: No, wait a minute.

CLINTON: We’ve covered this ground.

TRUMP: When they formed, when they formed, this is something that never should have happened. It should have never happened. Now, you’re talking about taking out ISIS. But you were there, and you were secretary of state when it was a little infant. Now it’s in over 30 countries. And you’re going to stop them? I don’t think so.

HOLT: Mr. Trump, a lot of these are judgment questions. You had supported the war in Iraq before the invasion. What makes your…

TRUMP: I did not support the war in Iraq.

HOLT: In 2002…

TRUMP: That is a mainstream media nonsense put out by her, because she — frankly, I think the best person in her campaign is mainstream media.

HOLT: My question is, since you supported it…

TRUMP: Just — would you like to hear…

HOLT: … why is your — why is your judgment…

TRUMP: Wait a minute. I was against the war in Iraq. Just so you put it out.

HOLT: The record shows otherwise, but why — why was…

TRUMP: The record does not show that.

HOLT: Why was — is your judgment any…

TRUMP: The record shows that I’m right. When I did an interview with Howard Stern, very lightly, first time anyone’s asked me that, I said, very lightly, I don’t know, maybe, who knows? Essentially. I then did an interview with Neil Cavuto. We talked about the economy is more important. I then spoke to Sean Hannity, which everybody refuses to call Sean Hannity. I had numerous conversations with Sean Hannity at Fox. And Sean Hannity said — and he called me the other day — and I spoke to him about it — he said you were totally against the war, because he was for the war.

HOLT: Why is your judgment better than…

TRUMP: And when he — excuse me. And that was before the war started. Sean Hannity said very strongly to me and other people — he’s willing to say it, but nobody wants to call him. I was against the war. He said, you used to have fights with me, because Sean was in favor of the war.

And I understand that side, also, not very much, because we should have never been there. But nobody called Sean Hannity. And then they did an article in a major magazine, shortly after the war started. I think in ’04. But they did an article which had me totally against the war in Iraq.

And one of your compatriots said, you know, whether it was before or right after, Trump was definitely — because if you read this article, there’s no doubt. But if somebody — and I’ll ask the press — if somebody would call up Sean Hannity, this was before the war started. He and I used to have arguments about the war. I said, it’s a terrible and a stupid thing. It’s going to destabilize the Middle East. And that’s exactly what it’s done. It’s been a disaster.

HOLT: My reference was to what you had said in 2002, and my question was…

TRUMP: No, no. You didn’t hear what I said.

HOLT: Why is your judgment — why is your judgment any different than Mrs. Clinton’s judgment?

TRUMP: Well, I have much better judgment than she does. There’s no question about that. I also have a much better temperament than she has, you know?


I have a much better — she spent — let me tell you — she spent hundreds of millions of dollars on an advertising — you know, they get Madison Avenue into a room, they put names — oh, temperament, let’s go after — I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament. I have a winning temperament. I know how to win. She does not have a…

HOLT: Secretary Clinton?

TRUMP: Wait. The AFL-CIO the other day, behind the blue screen, I don’t know who you were talking to, Secretary Clinton, but you were totally out of control. I said, there’s a person with a temperament that’s got a problem.

HOLT: Secretary Clinton?


Again, let’s break this down into its essential components:

TRUMP: Clinton and Obama messed up the Middle East. (ATTACK)

CLINTON: Trump supported Iraq. (BAITING COUNTER)


CLINTON: Trump supported Libya. Bush decided to get out of Iraq, not Obama. Trump is bad for our alliances (ATTACK + EXPLAINING + ATTACK)

TRUMP: You messed up the Middle East, you did the Iran Deal. I have issues with NATO but I don’t have a problem with our allies. You created the vacuum that led to ISIS (ATTACK + EXPLAINING + ATTACK)


HOLT: Trump was for Iraq, why is his judgment better? (ATTACK PHRASED AS A QUESTION)














HOLT: Why is your temperament better than hers? (QUESTION)

TRUMP: I have the best temperament because I know how to win and she doesn’t. (BRAGGING FROM INSECURITY, SAYING HE’S WINNING AS HE LOSES)


Trump doesn’t blow it all at once. The initial denial in response to Clinton’s baiting counter isn’t that bad on its own. He returns to the attacking strategy and as the exchange progresses it looks as if he might come out ahead. But then Clinton asks the moderator to intervene, ostensibly because they had already covered the topic, but this was only the second time Trump had made the power vacuum argument, and the previous instance came earlier in the same exchange. When Holt intervenes, he re-uses Clinton’s baiting counter (also reintroducing a topic mentioned once earlier in the same exchange). Unlike Clinton, Holt stands his ground and makes the bait stick, and Trump falls for it.

What could Trump have done instead? When Trump gets an unfriendly question, he has a tendency to defend himself too much. When the moderator asks Trump a question, that is always an opportunity for Trump to respond with a devastating series of attacks. Trump should have allowed Holt to ask his question and then gone with something like this:

“I was against the war, everyone knows that, and it shows what a biased moderator you are that you would ask that question. We’re talking about Syria, we’re talking about a power vacuum created by her and Obama that led to ISIS and a refugee crisis that is devastating Europe and bringing crime and terror and she wants to let them come pouring into our country, and you want to ask biased questions. Shame on you. I’ll tell you why my judgment is better. Unlike Hillary Clinton, I learn. She doesn’t learn. She took the dictator out in Iraq and we had chaos, we had our veterans coming home hurt and no jobs, no healthcare for them. Our people died, what did they die for, Lester? So ISIS could take the oil and blow up Americans? Everyone makes mistakes, but then she did it again with Libya. She took out the dictator and again, more chaos, more oil for ISIS. And now she wants to do it again in Syria, take out the dictator and expect everything to just work out, and believe me, it’s not going to work out, Lester, it’s not. She does the same thing over and over, she makes the same mistakes over and over, she doesn’t learn. She doesn’t learn on the economy, she doesn’t learn on the Middle East, she doesn’t learn. Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Her policies are insane. You can’t have good judgment if you do things that are insane. Her policies are insane.”

See how totally free of policy detail this is? And yet unless you’re a big supporter of American policy in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, it’s persuasive, isn’t it? Understood correctly, Holt’s question was not an attack on Trump. It was an opportunity for Trump to attack Clinton’s judgment. When Kobe backs off Shaq and dares him to shoot the three, he also gives Shaq room to build up a head of steam if he goes charging for the basket and force Kobe to back-peddle. If Trump avoids taking the bait, he can use take advantage of these openings to inflict severe injury with bold attacks.

Now, to say something like that you need to prepare a little, but you don’t need to prepare with policy briefs on Syria. You just need to rehearse attacks and practice using them in response to baiting counters and questions that are designed to make you defend. When Trump is practicing ahead of the next debate, he should practice finding a way to turn every question and every reply into an opportunity to attack with a memorable boldness that will force Clinton to respond or look weak by avoiding.

There are a lot of problems in this country. Trump has no good solutions to the problems we face, but he does know how to identify problems and loudly and aggressively blame other people for them. That’s how he can win–by making the debates about what’s wrong with the country and the role Clinton is perceived to have played in what’s wrong with it. Attack, attack, and attack some more.

As for Clinton? She has a good strategy, and going forward should work at perfecting it. Her goal is to goad Trump into defending himself or attempting to explain policy issues so that the media narrative is focused around his petulant defensiveness and factual screw-ups. So far so good…