Debate with Donald Trump? Just say no

Debate with Donald Trump? Just say no
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It may seem early to be thinking about presidential debates, but they are coming and everyone who is thinking of taking on President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden campaign slams Facebook after thousands of ads blocked by platform's pre-election blackout Mnuchin says he learned of Pelosi's letter to him about stimulus talks 'in the press' Harris to travel to Texas Friday after polls show tie between Trump, Biden MORE, either in Republican primaries (good luck with that) or in the general election, needs to face a threshold question: whether or not to debate him. I recommend boycotting. In fact, it’s not a close question.

Since he’s the current front-runner on the Democratic side, let’s start with former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHarris to travel to Texas Friday after polls show tie between Trump, Biden Florida heat sends a dozen Trump rally attendees to hospital Harris more often the target of online misinformation than Pence: report MORE. A recent Mother Jones article by Pema Levy makes as cogent a case as I can imagine that, based on his performance debating House Speaker and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcCarthy faces pushback from anxious Republicans over interview comments Pelosi and Trump go a full year without speaking Jordan vows to back McCarthy as leader even if House loses more GOP seats MORE (R-Wis.) in 2012, Mr. Biden would fare well in a debate with President Trump. 


Still, I’m not persuaded that debating Mr. Trump is a good idea. Mr. Biden has never debated Trump. So what, you ask? The answer is that Mr. Trump is unlike any other player in our current political scene. Unlike Speaker Ryan and everyone else, he abides by no rules and is capable of literally anything. A genial debate opponent, even one who may try to ridicule him, will never lay a glove to him.

Let’s remember: In the 2016 GOP debates, Mr. Trump ignored all efforts to rein him in. He insulted a moderator and got away with it. He engaged in the most juvenile name-calling and got away with it. He interrupted at will and got away with it. He got away with not answering questions.

In debating Secretary Clinton, Mr. Trump was out of control and good moderators proved utterly incapable of reining him in. He famously roamed the stage behind Mrs. Clinton’s back and interrupted her whenever he felt like it.

My feeling in September 2016 was that Mrs. Clinton should not have debated him — and should have told the country why.

Would Mrs. Clinton have paid a price if she had taken this advice? Maybe, but it would have been a modest one if she explained her reasons cogently, which would not have been difficult. It would be even easier to state those reasons today, with Mr. Trump’s known lies hitting five digits in a little over two years.

Consider how a debate with Mr. Trump would almost certainly unfold in the 2020 election cycle. He would not stick to any script. He would not be dignified or logical. He would engage in personal invective of a very low order. His lies would come at machine-gun pace. He would interrupt. He would not answer questions. He would not accept the moderators’ instructions. He would be quite likely to bring some controversial guest to rattle his adversaries, not to mention the likelihood of a MAGA claque that moderators would be unable to control.


Such a candidate cannot be debated, and it is not only naïve but absurd to pretend otherwise. Faced with personal insults, his debate opponents would have no good options. They can interrupt back, or try to go insult-for-insult — a hopeless task, given his skills and shamelessness in that department. They can call on moderators to intervene — an appeal unlikely to bear fruit. They can threaten to walk out. They can actually stage a walkout. But then what? Does the debate go on, like the Zen koan of one hand clapping? Does Mr. Trump use the remainder of the scheduled debate time to give a speech or to take questions from the floor? Do the moderators halt the proceedings?

This is a total no-win situation for anyone who debates Trump. A debate with him adds nothing to public understanding of him, his policies, or his fitness for office. A debate almost certainly would require any other debaters to join him in the gutter. Why would anyone do that?

Eugene R. Fidell teaches at Yale Law School and is of counsel at the Washington, DC law firm Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell LLP. He edits the blog Global Military Justice Reform, globalmjreform.blogspot.com.