Debate: Controlling Trump, Avoiding Disparate Treatment

Ever since the Commission for Presidential Debates announced its rules for the debate coming up on Monday, I’ve been wondering whether moderator Lester Holt has a plan for controlling Trump — and avoiding the disparate treatment trap that snared Matt Lauer.

Of course, both candidates have agreed to the rules. But if we have learned anything about the Donald, it’s that his commitments mean nothing. And Trump is all about dominance, not to mention misogyny and racism. So — faced with a woman opponent and a black moderator — what are the odds that he’ll play by the rules?

Can Trump Be Made To Follow the Rules?

Giving Trump two minutes to answer a policy question in a debate is not likely to result in much other than repeated statements of how his policies will be “the greatest” and Clinton’s will be “the worst.” That’s just fine for his true believers. The danger for Trump is that independents/undecideds might break for Clinton, once they see the difference in substance. So Trump’s path to dominance winds through intimidating Clinton AND the moderator. He’s likely to do this by ignoring time limits, interrupting, and physically moving toward Clinton, to loom over her and shut her down.

And how will Holt control Trump, if these things happen? If he doesn’t have a button that will shut off Trump’s mike — or a large hook that can yank Trump back to his lectern — what’s he going to do? Tell Trump to shut up? Rap his knuckles with a ruler? I hope Holt is giving these possibilities some thought because if he doesn’t have a plan — and the steel to implement it — Trump will run right over him.

Can Holt Avoid Disparate Treatment?

Holt also needs a plan to avoid repeating Matt Lauer’s performance in the sequential interviews of two weeks ago. Clinton certainly will face sexism from Trump; she shouldn’t have to face it from Holt as well.

I’m not saying Holt is knowingly sexist, nor that he would intentionally discriminate against Clinton. Unlike Lauer, he’s actually sort of a hard news guy. He should be able to ask hard questions of both candidates, press for answers, and hold their respective feet to the fire of Fact. Unfortunately, Holt also is an American male of a certain age (57; Lauer is 58). He’s been socialized by a culture that expects different behaviors from women than from men and holds women to different standards. More to the point, Holt also is more than likely blithely unaware that he harbors differential expectations of women or that he may treat women differently than he treats similarly-situated men.

During the debate, Holt is likely to interrupt Clinton more than he interrupts Trump, press her harder than he presses Trump, and focus more on her “flaws” than he does on Trump’s. He’s also less likely to accept her explanations for questionable behavior than he does Trump’s. That wouldn’t be intentional discrimination, any more than poor Matt Lauer’s disparate treatment was. But intent doesn’t matter. Disparate treatment is disparate treatment. It can tilt the scales against its target, as Lauer so clearly demonstrated.

I’ve often characterized any Presidential debate as “a semi-great non-debate” because our debates are little more than opportunities for regurgitating talking points. The real value of such a “debate” lies not in the discussion of opposing ideas, but in having voters see the two candidates in the same setting, responding to the same stimulus. Unfortunately, when one candidate is male and the other female, again as Matt Lauer made obvious, the stimulus is likely to be disparate — and therefore likely to reinforce cultural stereotypes.

Watch the debate carefully next Monday. Will Holt be able to control Trump? And even if he can do that, can he avoid treating the two Presidential candidates differently? Stay tuned.

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