Resolute Square

Authoritarians Like Trump Don’t Debate

Dr. Jen Mercieca writes, "Trump has repeatedly shown the nation that while he might stand on the debate stage and look like someone who is there to debate, he most definitely is not." Why? Authoritarians don't debate.
Published:April 24, 2024

By Dr. Jennifer Mercieca

On April 14, 2024, a group of news organizations released a joint statement on presidential debates, urging “the presumptive presidential nominees to publicly commit to participating in general election debates before November’s election.”

The media organizations gave a good reason for why they believed the presidential candidates ought to be committed to debate. “There is simply no substitute,” they wrote, “for the candidates debating with each other and before the American people, their visions for the future of our nation.” This reasoning is correct in general, but it’s wrong for this election year.

Joe Biden should not agree to the presidential debates because Donald Trump is not running for president; he is running for dictator. You can’t debate with a wannabe dictator.

Leaders who give good reasons for their beliefs and allow others to question them are “cognitively responsible.” The give-and-take of questioning and answering through debate makes leaders accountable, and accountable leaders are democratic.

Leaders who do not give good reasons for their beliefs or allow others to question them are “cognitively irresponsible.” Rejecting the give-and-take of questioning and answering through debate makes leaders unaccountable—and unaccountable leaders are authoritarian. 

Biden is a “cognitively responsible” democratic leader. As such, he would normally agree to the presidential debates and engage in an exchange of ideas to persuade the nation that his vision for our future is the right one. Trump is a “cognitively irresponsible” autocratic leader, and he would not enter into the give-and-take of ideas—even if he agreed to debate.

Trump has repeatedly shown the nation that while he might stand on the debate stage and look like someone who is there to debate, he most definitely is not.

America may have already forgotten what happened when Biden and Trump debated in 2020, but it was an unmitigated disaster. Trump was so aggressive in the first debate—yelling at moderator Chris Wallace before he could even ask the first question, talking over and interrupting both Wallace and Biden and acting like a defiant autocrat when asked to account for his policies—that the Commission on Presidential Debates had to add new rules for the remaining debate, including a mute button.

In 2016, he likewise used every debate to attack the moderators, attack his opponents, and even aggressively physically stalked Hillary Clinton on the debate stage. Trump’s past debate record proves that he uses the spectacle of debate to show dominance. It’s one of the ways you know that he’s an authoritarian. Authoritarians don’t debate; they dominate.

Trump is not interested in actual “debate”—he’s not open to being persuaded. His goal is to aggressively humiliate and “expose” his opponent (including the moderators) and intimidate them. 

Before a debate even starts, Trump is up to his authoritarian rhetorical tricks. Trump uses ad baculum (threats of force and intimidation) to coerce the Commission on Presidential Debates, his opponent, and the moderators to create favorable conditions for Trump. For example, in 2020, Trump accused the CPD of “partisan, anti-Trump beliefs” because it attempted to create and enforce debate rules against him. 

These threats will not only coerce favorable rules for Trump, but they will help him to deploy a “poison the well” strategy so that no matter how badly Trump does in the debate, it will appear that he should have won because he’s convinced his followers that the CPD and moderators are stacked against him. 

Trump will also attempt to undermine Biden’s credibility, like he did in 2020, by accusing him of “cheating,” using conspiracy lies and ad hominem (attacking the person instead of their argument) to frame the nation’s understanding of Biden’s capabilities. 

During the debate, Trump will continue to use his authoritarian rhetorical tricks. 

Because his goal is to humiliate his opponent, not persuade, Trump doesn’t care if he doesn't have the correct information or a solid argument. He looks at these debates as an opportunity to spin, not educate. Trump will deploy a buffet of authoritarian rhetorical tricks, including ad hominem (attacking the person), tu quoque (accusations of hypocrisy), conspiracy lies (self-sealing narratives), false accusations of corruption, attacking the interviewer, frame warfare, and evasion. Unless you have a debate referee there flagging Trump’s debate violations in real-time (and a mute button), he will use his authoritarian rhetorical tricks without compunction.

Trump talks so fast and spews so many lies that moderators have found it impossible to fact-check or reign in his lies and distortions. In a strategy that old-timey propaganda folks called a “gish gallop,” an interviewer or moderator (like this 2023 Meet the Press interview) will try to get Trump to answer a specific question, but Trump will tell 20 lies in the process, and the interviewer can’t stop each of those 20 lies—especially if they focus on the one question they’re trying to get Trump to answer. It’s futile to ask him questions under those circumstances. 

Trump does not value democracy. Trump values force and intimidation and threats. We’ve seen how he acts in court, violating the rules and violating gag orders. He cannot be restrained by rules. He would never “debate,” he would dominate. 

And maybe there’s some value to seeing a presidential candidate like Trump do that, so we could learn that he is authoritarian, but not in this case. We know who Trump is and what he will do. He has shown us every day since 2015. 

And it’s a real shame. The American public deserves to hear their presidential candidates debate each other. Presidential debates actually do help people to decide who to support in elections. It’s a real shame that the Republican Party is nominating someone who doesn’t value debate or democracy.