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Ahead of Tonight’s Debate, the 2016 Flashbacks Are Already Strong

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (L) and Republican nominee Donald Trump stand in front of the audience during the second presidential debate in 2016.

The first presidential debate of the 2020 election, between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, is tonight, and it’s hard to imagine it will be anything but a total train wreck. It was going to be a mess even before this weekend, when the New York Times released an exposé detailing two decades of Trump’s possible tax fraud and his spectacular failings as a businessman.

In the wake of that report, we can only imagine what sort of state of mind he must be in. Over on Twitter, people are having fun with that imagining.

The responses to attorney/advocate/author/podcaster Rabia Chaudry’s questions are equal parts hilarious and upsetting in their likely accuracy.

While I have no doubt that Trump is probably having a full-on meltdown, I’m also filled with dread and flashbacks to 2016. Politico ran a piece Tuesday from journalist Ryan Lizza, reanalyzing Trump’s debates from the last election, both in the Republican primaries and the general election against Hillary Clinton. It’s a depressing read.

It’s also an important reminder of the danger of underestimating Trump. We don’t think of him as a great debater or orator, but he is a bully and a steamroller, and those skills, unfortunately, work really well for him in this sort of scenario. He has no problem lying and exaggerating about himself and his opponents and denying the truth when challenged, essentially framing reality itself as a difference of opinion. Debates are Trump’s gaslighting Olympics.

The Politico article opens with this salient anecdote:

In 2016, during one of her first prep sessions for the presidential debates with Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton listened to a litany of attacks from Philippe Reines, a longtime aide who was playing the role of Trump and tormenting her with zingers about taxes, jobs, and immigration.

Hillary had never created 100,000 jobs as Trump had!

Trump’s tax plan was endorsed by Larry Kudlow, one of the greatest economists of all time!

You can’t have a country if you don’t have a real border!

Clinton sat down, chastened. This was not going to be easy. “That’s a devastating argument,” she said. “I have not created 100,000 jobs. And maybe nobody knows who Larry Kudlow is but he’s telling you he’s the expert!”

Trump doesn’t debate like a normal politician. He doesn’t want to address the issues; he wants to reframe reality, and that’s really hard to counter.

Lizza writes that Trump’s patented three-step response to a typical debate point is, as Reines described it in 2016, “word salad, weird digression, I’m great and she’s terrible.”

Our low expectations of Trump are also bound to help him out because he is almost definitely going to look restrained in comparison to what we’re used to seeing from him. Lizza writes,

After watching hours of Trump’s debates from 2015 and 2016, what comes across in hindsight is that he had an under-appreciated style, strategy, and message. He was not the Donald Trump of Twitter, where he launches his crudest attacks. He was not the Donald Trump of MAGA rallies, where he feeds off the crowd and plays a role that is a mix of demagogue, right-wing pundit, and entertainer.

Basically, if Trump doesn’t hurl insults like he does on Twitter or rant about how many times he has to flush his toilet like he does at rallies, he’ll come away looking “presidential” in comparison to … the incredibly low bar he’s set for himself.

Those 2016 flashbacks really are way too strong.

(via , image: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.