The conventional wisdom holds that Donald Trump must appear calm and presidential in tonight's debate. This is 100 percent wrong.
Presidential debates almost never turn on policy, but on drama created by the characters. In the first presidential debate in 2012, Mitt Romney scored major points merely by being energetic, prosecutorial, and sharp, where President Obama appeared disinterested, even bored. By the second debate, Obama had gotten his pep back, and looked unflappable and confident while Romney stumbled. In 2000, Al Gore came across as exasperated and dweeby while George W. Bush seemed confident and relaxed.
The key to Trump's extraordinary success in the GOP primary debates was that he knows how to be a television character. He has an instinctive sense for drama in the moment. He has performed in front of raucous crowds before.
Trump applied belittling and memorably apt nicknames to his opponents. "Little Marco" played to the type of the overeager short man. Trump called Bush "low energy" and Bush ended up proving the charge by backing down from his own demand that Trump apologize for insulting his wife.
Trump can't be quite the same brawler against Hillary Clinton. She'll be prepared for that. And he won't have a loud supportive audience. But he shouldn't be calm and presidential. He has to play the part of the high-energy populist. He also must maintain that controlled aggression throughout the night. In the last handful of GOP debates, with fewer opponents, Trump seemed to get bored and to drag by the end.
To say that Trump should tone it all down is to say that he should use his debate performance to draw a contrast with his own reputation, or with the low expectations of the media and the audience. That's a mistake. Trump is behind. He needs to make his contrast with Clinton. He needs to make his brand of crazy seem more connected to the needs of our present moment than Clinton's boring brand of competence.
Trump's whole campaign is premised implicitly on the idea that the country has been heading in the wrong direction. It is one of the few themes of his campaign that has near supermajority support. So Trump must implicitly connect Clinton's "experience" to the rottenness of the status quo.
Aren't you tired of this kind of "experience"? While Clinton was going through the "experience" of a lifetime in politics, Americans experienced decades of stagnating wages for the middle class. For the first time, America experienced what it was like to lose in the great game of world commerce; millions of men are out of work. Hillary's experience meant endorsing wars in Iraq and Libya, her "competence" meant disaster after disaster in the Middle East. The "competent" people endorsed all these mistakes. Clinton endorsed all of them, too. In other words, Trump should turn every Hillary Clinton boast about her "experience" into an admission of guilt for America's current troubles.
It is true that Trump's colorful persona can get him into trouble. Trump's sense for drama can be used against him. When Marco Rubio made a joke that implicitly challenged the size of Trump's manhood, Trump took the bait and confidently assured a worried nation, "I guarantee you there's no problem."
That was a great way for Trump to get a laugh and win the exchange. But he surely lost some of the audience.
Still, Trump shouldn't try to be presidential tonight. He should stick to being different. For good and ill — mostly ill — Trump is a once-a-century candidate. He needs to embrace that. He should put himself forward as the only man we'll ever see in our lifetime of voting who can interrupt this endless succession of "competent" and "experienced" politicians. This is a time when seven out of ten people believe the country is going in the wrong direction, and when more people than that despise the performance of Congress. Trump should embrace the fact that he is an outlier. The emotional response he needs to seek from undecided viewers isn't, "Gee, Donald Trump looks more like a regular politician tonight." Instead it should be, "I know it's crazy. But screw it. I'm voting Trump."