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In seven days time the first of four presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will take place in Hempstead, New York State. It is probably fair to say that no such debate has been as hotly anticipated in recent memory as this one now is. The debate marks the biggest test Donald Trump has faced since the launch of his candidacy for the Republican nomination back in 2015. It represents a vital trial of the New Yorker’s presidential character, professionalism and natural wit.
Hillary Clinton, now lagging behind Trump in many national polls, will be placing a lot of her hopes on the debates. Unlike Trump, the Democrat is a natural when it comes to conventional political combat. She – and her team – will be hoping (and expecting) Trump to be suffocated by the polite constraints of traditional procedure and to show his unease by lashing out wildly at Clinton’s character, appearance, dress sense, femininity, etc. Put simply, they hope and expect Trump to suffer a meltdown.
Whilst I would love to say that Clinton’s strategy is unrealistic, I cannot, as it is perfectly feasible. Trump’s Achilles heel, as he has proven time and time again, is his volcanic and unpredictable personality, his tendency to hit back after every real or perceived slight with much greater force and immaturity than is required or appropriate. All Clinton has to do in these contests is provoke that kind of reaction. All she has to do is poke the tiger until it growls.
This is the most obvious and likely strategy for Hillary to pursue, but there are other possibilities open to her. The rabidly pro-Clinton Washington Post made the following suggestions for their preferred candidate: “Take (Trump) up on his word. He said he “regrets” certain things. Invite him to apologize to Judge Gonzalo Curiel or the Gold Star parents of Capt. Humayun Khan… Another tactic is to press him on empty and unintelligible answers. Trump rarely completes a sentence or can articulate any level of detail about his proposals. When Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and CNN’s Dana Bash tag-teamed, forcing Trump to explain what was in his health-care plan, it became patently obvious that he had a whole lot of nothing to offer. She can certainly take a page from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s book (used against Rubio) in pointing out that Trump repeats the same platitudes. Tell us, Donald, what’s your plan to reduce crime in Chicago? Have you ever sat down with law enforcement?… There are oodles of issues (such as the nuclear triad) about which Trump knows nothing. Challenge him to spell out his stance on net neutrality, the South China Sea and student loans. In other cases — the minimum wage, repayment of U.S. debt and immigration, of course — he has been all over the lot. Force him to pick a position and explain why he has said the opposite.”
Trump’s strategy for the debates is less clear at this point in time. When asked about his intended approach, the Republican has wisely dodged the question, explaining that he would prefer to not give anything away to the opposition prior to the event. We can thus only speculate.
I have a inkling that Trump’s strategy will hinge on portraying Clinton, as he has done all through his campaign so far, as ‘crooked’, dishonest, corrupt and in the pocket of the financial elite; an image he will then contrast with his own man-of-the-people persona.
The email scandal will undoubtedly be raised repeatedly, with Trump going off track and questioning Clinton directly about the thousands of inexplicably deleted messages. He will also link these questions to the issue of the Clinton Foundation and its highly suspicious ties to foreign leaders (including foreign and Islamic dictators).
This approach will carry Trump some of the way, but not all of it. He will need to have more strings to his bow prepared if he is to the win the debate outright.
To arrive at the best strategy for winning the debates, Trump would do best to look at what has carried him through the process thus far. I would say that, more than anything else, it is his credentials relating to the Islamist threat that have won over the hearts of patriotic American voters (including true liberals and Democrats). His positions on ISIS, Muslim immigration, Syrian refugee policy and other connected issues have been wildly popular with a broad cross-section of American society. Pushing hard on Clinton’s weakness on Islamism will pave the way for a very important ideological touchdown.
It is possible that in the days that remain before the November election there will be another Islamist atrocity somewhere in the world, perhaps even in the Western World*. This will serve as a timely reminder of how extraordinary the problems we (as a civilisation) face really are, and thus how inappropriate it would be to elect an ordinary candidate to solve them.
The Islamist challenge is so total and grave that all other issues melt under its heat. Trump and his team must realise this fact and base their approach on it. Sure, there are problems with the American economy which require ironing out; sure, illegal immigration from Mexico is undermining American sovereignty and nationhood; sure, the trade deficit with China is growing at an alarming rate. But none of these issues are new or so extraordinary as to justify the American electorate taking a risk on a provocative and unconventional candidate (and that, undoubtedly, is what Trump is). Trump’s presidency is so unique and strange a prospect that he must build an equally strange and unique context in which it will seem appropriate and necessary. The only way he can achieve this, in my opinion, is with reference to the Islamist threat.
At the debates, Trump must be specific about how he will deal with this extraordinary issue. Soundbites, however popular they may be, should be avoided. It simply isn’t enough to say things like “We need to get tough and we need to get smart.” This is so vague as to be meaningless. Trump must map out a strategy for pulverising Islamism, demolishing it so severely that it will not dare raise its evil head for decades to come.
*Today, as I write, debris is once again being cleaned up from the streets of a Western city. In Manhattan, NYC, two bombs have exploded, injuring almost thirty innocent civilians. Meanwhile, in the peaceful, Scandinavian-American State of Minnesota, eight people have been stabbed at a shopping mall, the attacker allegedly interrogating potential victims as to their religious beliefs prior to attacking them.
These are indeed extraordinary times. They require an extraordinary leader. Next week in New York, Donald Trump would do best not to try and make himself seem ordinary, but rather embrace his uniqueness, tying it to the uniqueness of the times in which we find ourselves.