Donald Trump's Biggest Debate Challenge Is Donald Trump

Here are 4 ways the Republican front-runner can hurt his own cause during the first debate.

Debate Preview: Who’s Got the Most at Stake?

The actual ideology of Donald Trump remains a topic of considerable debate—he was pro-choice and for an assault weapon ban, he’s now pro-life and against all gun control, just for starters—but one thing remains clear: As a politician, he is a nihilist. He has broken, gleefully, so many existing rules of the game, and the numbers just keep going up. 

And that's exactly why it's so hard for opponents to come up with a strategy to beat him. 

Trump exists so much in his own universe that engaging him, poking the bear, seems likely to cause more harm than help. But that doesn’t mean he can’t implode himself. As impressive as Trump’s numbers are, they are still inextricably tied to the Trump Brand, the bullying, swaggering, "you’re a total loser" television personality. And as anyone who has ever worked in television can tell you, your brand can evaporate in one wrong second. Donald Trump, in order to keep this up, needs to keep being Donald Trump, and that’s a more delicate balance than one might think. Here are some ways it could go wrong for Trump on Thursday night. Not surprisingly, most of these wounds, if they occur, would be self-inflicted.

He could be boring

John Dickerson, host of Face the Nation and one of the panelists on the essential Slate Political Podcast, argued on that podcast last week that the obvious move is for Trump to make himself look reasonable, to hang onto his base but still bring others into the fold. Coincidentally, I think, Trump was on Face the Nation on Sunday and seemed to follow this advice, sounding (for him) almost polished and, bite your tongue, even vaguely presidential.

I’m not sure this is the right tactic, though. This debate promises to be watched by more people than any debate at this stage of the cycle in decades. I have countless friends and family members who are tuning in just to see Trump, and I’m sure you do too. People are not tuning in to see Donald Trump play ball and work with the Republican establishment: They’re there to see him kick ass.

It’s a maxim in politics that challengers are often elevated when they stand next to incumbents simply because they’re standing next to them: They get the stature of an elected official merely by being on the same stage. But this cuts both ways. A foundation of Trump’s popularity is that he is seen as outside this system, that he’s not full of it the way other politicians seem to so many of his supporters. If he goes out there Thursday and plays nice, he looks like just another politician. People want to see Trump lay waste to the empty suits in Washington. They don’t want him to be one.

He could dodge questions or look uncertain

One of the primary appeals of listening to Trump talk is that he is absolutely positive that he is the great American leader and entrepreneur he claims to be. There is no room for contemplation and complexity in the brain of Donald Trump (or on his "MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN" hats). The world is full of fear and doubt and uncertainty: Trump’s way of speaking provides a comforting illusion that all this can be fixed by plowing your way through and not being all namby-pamby about it. It’s Governing By Alpha Maleism. You always know where Trump stands on something, even if you spent more time thinking about it than he did. 

But the thing is: The world is not actually as simple as Trump believes it to be, or at least as simple as he tries to make it look like it is. The downside to Trump’s bluster is that when he’s called on it by someone who doesn’t share his worldview – mostly, that Donald Trump is right about everything—he sometimes doesn’t know how to handle it. Watch this famous David Letterman clip, when the talk show host slyly lures his prey to take the bait and then pounces. 

Busted on his own rhetoric, Trump doesn’t know how to respond: He’s, for once, speechless. Trump has built his campaign, his whole public life, on having all the answers. If it looks like he doesn’t—or, worse, like he’s dodging a tough question, like one of those gross, nasty politicians—the Trump illusion dissolves.

He could have a Rick Perry moment 

Do you believe Donald Trump knows who the prime minister of Greece is? How about the Emir of Kuwait? What’s Trump’s view on education reform? Disaster relief? Anything outside what happens to be in the headlines at this particular moment? Trump, for all his media skills, has yet to display much mastery of the actual process of government, or even basic understanding. (This is also part of his appeal.) The debate format might not allow much room for gotcha questions–or, put another way, questions that would show us whether the candidate knows what he’s talking about or not–but if Trump gets one, he could be in trouble. Because I doubt Donald Trump knows who the new president-elect of Poland is.

As Perry can tell you, one bad moment here can ruin you. Four years later, Perry’s still being left off the debate stage, despite being the governor of a major state and despite being talked about as a potential presidential candidate for decades, because he couldn’t remember an important fact in a debate. I hope Trump is studying.

He could just say something truly horrible

So you know that McCain moment that everyone thought was going to sink Trump? Watch it again.

Look what inspires Trump to pull out the “not a war hero” shotgun. It’s not impatience with McCain: It’s impatience with moderator Frank Luntz, who had just called McCain a war hero, criticized Trump calling him a “dummy” and, according to Trump, interrupted him repeatedly. Trump, being Trump, is not accustomed to sharing any stage with anyone, let alone having people talk over him and press him. Luntz legitimately rattles him for a few seconds.

When Trump is rattled, he retreats into insult mode. And no one is more comfortable in insult mode than Donald Trump. Thus, the “he’s a war hero because he was captured” line. You can tell, too, that Trump doesn’t entirely own the comment: He says, “OK, perhaps he’s a war hero” after saying it, eager to move on. But the damage was done (well, OK, the damage would have been done if we lived in a universe where insulting an American soldier who was tortured in a foreign prison because he was captured makes your poll numbers go down rather than up). That’s not the point, though. The point is that there are, in fact, people Trump could insult at a Republican debate that could cause him a mortal blow than the McCain line did. Maybe it’s not McCain. But maybe it’s somebody.

The key to all these? They come from Trump himself. Trump isn’t impervious to the laws of gravity, and politics, and rational thought. It only seems that way. On the biggest stage, Trump’s primary obstacle is Trump. It always has been.