The first Clinton-Trump debate has been marketed by the networks as a mix between the Super Bowl, the Super Bowl halftime show, and Wrestlemania. They have promised viewers a bare-knuckle brawl, a once-in-a-lifetime showdown between two political heavyweights, who will ... talk at each other for 90 minutes! It’s rare that you have candidates who are near perfect contrasts: one establishment, one anti-establishment; one disciplined, one unpredictable; etc., etc. But the first debate is being sold like it belongs on pay-per-view for one reason: No one knows what the hell Donald Trump is going to do.
Trump is a chaotic candidate who represents a unique threat to American democracy (partly because he is so chaotic). In the lead-up to the debate, there has been some evidence that Trump would deploy the “madman” strategy that helped him win the Republican primary. Publicly inviting Gennifer Flowers to the debate (even if it was done insincerely) is in keeping with this strategy. Trump wants Clinton to think that anything is possible on Monday. And it is! I’d be surprised if Trump, say, dropped his pants and mooned Lester Holt, but anything short of that is on the table.
That said, Trump and his team have sent a lot of signals that he is going to be boring. He’s said he wants to play nice, for instance, and his campaign has been playing the expectations game, telling the media that he’s barely prepared. Undecided voters seem to be worried about his temperament, so Trump may try to convince them that he’s presidential material by not seeming like the completely unqualified candidate that he is. In this sense, Trump may try to pull a Romney, flummoxing Clinton by pretending to be a completely different candidate. This, I think, is the most likely starting point for Trump. His task is to seem calm and “presidential” for 90 minutes.
But we’re also talking about Donald Trump, who has shown no discipline for the last fifteen months. Why change now?