This Is How Poorly Trump Communicates
Even his supporters struggle to make sense of his word salad.
A transcript of Mike Pesca’s postdebate podcast from Hofstra University:
It’s the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016, from Slate, it’s The Gist.
This is a postdebate rapid response. So tonight’s showdown was simultaneously the craziest, most bizarre bit of political theater I’ve seen since, well, since the last time Donald Trump took the stage. But it was also in a way the most predictable. It was expected, it was set-your-clock-to-it, for anyone who was paying attention. It turns out—and this whole thing hinged on this one idea—that Donald Trump is a poor communicator of ideas.
No, not wrong, Donald. We’re not speaking to a rabid fan base or a group who gets your dog-whistle references or understands and fills in the blanks of your spotty sentences. You’re simply bad at putting together an argument that is compelling.
It’s not wrong. Listen, Donald! Simply saying wrong into the microphone does not constitute a debate. You know what that’s called.
Trump: “That’s called business.”
Well, that’s how you do business. Sen. Claire McCaskill has another way to describe it.
McCaskill: “Yeah, I think it was probably really irritating to women across the country. The way he kept going down in the microphone and going, ‘Wrong.’ ”
Of course, the other team was making the case that Hillary had a poor showing, and she wasn’t perfect. She let too many opportunities slip by. She referenced the website once or twice or three times too often instead of just rebutting Trump. Example: She alleged that he profited from the housing crash. Pretty good allegation. Trump yelled out, “That’s called business” in that clip we just played. She should have answered something like, “That’s called opportunism,” or “That’s called immorality,” or “Well, if that’s your idea of business, that’s why we have to keep you away from White House.” Instead, she gave out a website. And there were times when Hillary grinned and took some abusive word-type substance from Trump. It was not always clear what he was saying. And in those moments, Hillary perhaps could have come up with something better than what she said. Here’s one of those moments:
Trump: “No wonder you’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life.”
Clinton: “That’s a—go to the please, fact-checkers, get to work.”
She should have said: “What are you talking about? They didn’t exist prior to 2004.” OK, so opportunities missed. Perhaps Hillary stuck too much to the script. Here’s what two Republican officials, however—Sen. David Perdue of Georgia and Congressman Chris Collins of New York—here’s what they saw.
Perdue first: “Hillary, bless her heart, came across as very robotic, very scripted, and you can see that she’s been in a room with political wonks for the last four days.”
And then Collins: “I thought that was not very human, it wasn’t very natural, it was like a robot.”
The thing about robots is: They work. They’re on task. Unless they’re hacked by a 400-pound cyber guy who’s definitely not Russian, robots are efficient and in control, unlike Donald Trump.
Trump: “When I look at what’s going on throughout various parts of our country, whether its—I mean I can just keep naming them all day long.”
Well I’d have preferred that to what he actually did. He interrupted.
Clinton: “You’ve proposed an approach that—”
Trump: “ —who gave it that name?”
He tangled with the moderator Lester Holt.
Holt: “I do want to follow up. Stop-and-frisk was ruled unconstitutional in New York because it largely singled out black and Hispanic young men.”
Trump: “No, you’re wrong.”
And he just failed to issue any policy proposal that would have stuck in anyone’s mind. He lied a bunch. He put his postdebate surrogate in a bind. So here’s Trump during the debate:
Clinton: “Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. I think it’s real. Science is real—”
Trump: “—I did not, I do not say that.”
And here’s Trump’s surrogate Boris Epshteyn afterward: “You know, if you’re referring to a tweet, he’s saying that that’s not what he believes and that’s not what he stands on now.”
Later, Trump surrogate Sarah Huckabee Sanders had to try to clean up that mess.
Huckabee Sanders: “I don’t think he thinks it’s the No. 1 concern, and I think that’s the point he was trying to make. ISIS and nuclear war is a much greater concern, and the fact that we would even compare the two and say that global warming is of greater concern is frankly laughable.”
Pesca: “But he thinks it’s our concern at some level?”
Huckabee Sanders: “He—probably. But not to the level of ISIS or a nuclear war.”
Huckabee Sanders said she missed the part, missed the part, wasn’t watching, when Trump denied saying it was a hoax. I guess I missed the part when Trump was going to avoid being sucked into spats and fights and the taking of slights. Even when Hillary failed to get under his skin, Lester Holt did that quite well. Trump’s fights with the moderators are sure to play poorly with undecided general election voters. This is not a Republican primary where beating up the media plays well, which is another one of those totally predictable things, along with Trump having thin skin and Trump lacking specifics and Hillary having command of the facts. Trump is running this general election like it’s still the primary. He’s doing only the things that worked in the primary. And by the very virtue of them having worked in the primary, they will not work now. And again, he is a poor communicator.
Now, in some areas he’s a poor communicator because he’s championing an untenable position, like his tax returns. There’s no good way to put it. I asked Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee: Wouldn’t it be weird to have members of the House of Representatives, members of the Senate all disclose their finances but the president remain opaque on that issue?
Blackburn: “Now, it’s different for different offices and different levels of government.”
But I could really demonstrate how poor a communicator Trump is by playing what actually I came to see as something of a spin room miracle. You can’t expect anyone in the spin room, if they’re Republican, to say that Trump lost. You can’t expect someone, like a Democrat, like say here, Hillary Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook, saying, “Yeah, Trump raised some good points,” can’t expect that.
Mook: “I think Trump made the case that he is totally unfit to be the next president.”
But I actually got educated in that spin room: I learned something of Donald Trump’s policies through his surrogates. So first, I asked retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn about this one:
Pesca: “When Donald Trump says take the oil—you’re a military man—what does that mean in terms of marching orders?”
Flynn’s answer touched on the notion that what Trump meant was to deny ISIS the oil, but soon Flynn was jabbing his fingers at reporters and tussling with foreign journalists over their assertions.
Flynn: “I’m gonna use Irish on you. That’s bullshit, OK? He did not, he did not. You go back, and you do your research, OK? You’re done, and I’m done talking to you because your research is poor, and when it’s done poor, it is.”
Then I wandered over to retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, also a Trump surrogate, and he explained sort of what Flynn was saying, that Trump didn’t mean “take it,” like keep it in a jug or sell it at an Exxon station in Schenectady. Here’s what he meant:
Kellogg: “When he says take the oil, it’s control the oil sources that are out there. Let’s go to Libya. There’s reports—and I don’t know how accurate the reports are because you don’t know—$2 million a day that they get out of the black market from selling oil on that market. His point about control the oil fields, holding them, denies them the economic opportunity to go forward. So that’s when he says take the oil. What he meant is: deny them the economic ability that they have to use money.”
Now I don’t know if that really is what Trump meant. A lot of times surrogates try to clean up his mess for him. But it’s a decent enough explanation. And Gen. Kellogg made an analogy to Trump using building-construction jargon in conversations he had with the general. A reference to constant poor, the general didn’t know what it was, Trump explained it. The general’s point was, Oh, he might not know what take the oil is. I’m going to explain that right phrase. I’m going to communicate the idea better than perhaps Trump did.
Kellogg: “So he uses language as a businessman, as somebody who’s not a military guy. Would I use different words? Sure I would.”
Look, this might be me bending over buying some spin, but if anything, what I’m really doing is making a bigger point about Trump’s inability to make an argument. He can’t do it. An interruption is not an argument. A word salad—sorry, word coleslaw—does not a case make. And in this debate, Trump did nothing, absolutely nothing, to show himself to be anything other than a showman. Sure, he rested the attention of the disaffected and often angry Republicans in the primary. But there’s no way he would appeal to any fair-minded voter, even one who is desperately looking to a plausible alternative to an unliked Hillary Clinton because she at least scans as something approaching an adult.
That’s it for the rapid response. Mary Wilson and Chris Berube were with me the whole time producing this, even after the Wi-Fi went out in the spin room here at Hofstra. We’ll speak to you [Tuesday] with more rapid responses to come. Um Peru, De Peru, Do Peru, and thanks for listening.