“There’s your dad.”
It was ~the line~ growing up. We’d race to see who could whisper it first: an elderly man jogging by with a wedgie; a New Yorker passing through with a gold medallion necklace; a guy down at the gas station missing too many front teeth; the bank teller who was just a little too stern.
My go-to response was always: “Probably—want me to ask him out for ya?”
This kind of banter was par for the course; the daily discourse of thirteen-year-olds growing up in small-town rural America, riding our bikes through the neighborhood and stopping to eat a ham sandwich along the crick. (Pronounced crick, not creek, “unless you’re a douche.”)
As I got older, a group of teenage boys would gather by the bridge outside my trailer where I lived. They use it as a miniature skateboard park. This was, perhaps, my greatest advantage: once I got over the humiliation of them knowing where I lived, it was incredibly convenient for me to just happen to be walking by to go to the post office. (Or, uh, literally anywhere as an excuse to interact.)
“Hey, nice shirt,” I’d call out. “Real sweet of your grandma to let you borrow it.”
“I borrowed it from your mom last night.”
“Oh, that was YOU crying in there?”
And so went every conversation, every day, for as long as I can remember: endless rounds of (cringe-worthy) linguistic sparring as a substitute for a simple “hello.” But it was the heart of who we were, there in that small town: a bunch of poor, rural kids whose only line of defense were our mouths. We didn’t have money, but we had a comeback; we might not have respectable parents, but we had respectable one-liners.
And it gave us a way to bond.
By excluding outsiders, we were more included.
Insults were love.
And for all the trash-talking we did, all we were really trying to say were three words, in the end: “I am worthy.”
Fast forward twenty years.
It’s 2016. Donald Trump is running for president. These are the types of things he says (h/t to New York Times for keeping this running tally of insults):
- “Who should star in a reboot of Liar, Liar? Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz? Let me know.” (Original tweet.)
- “…When I saw you at Fox you ran over like a child and wanted a picture.” (Original tweet.)
- “George Bush…wants $120,000 to make a boring speech?” (Original tweet.)
- “I hear that sleepy eyes Chuck Todd will be fired like a dog…I can't imagine what is taking so long!” (Original tweet.)
- “Rick Perry…should be forced to take an IQ test before being allowed to enter the GOP debate.” (Original tweet.)
- “I just realized that if you listen to Carly Fiorina for more than ten minutes straight, you develop a massive headache.” (Original tweet.)
I think about growing up in my hometown all those years ago. I think about the way we revered trash talk. I think about how it equated to intelligence for us. I think about how the most popular kids were the most sarcastic. I think about how desperately we followed them.
And I think about how desperately they followed Donald Trump in 2016.
- “Jeb Bush has been confused for forty years.” (Original tweet.)
- “Ben Carson has never created a job in his life (well, maybe a nurse).” (Original tweet.)
- “Would be nice if Jonathan Martin learned how to read the polls before writing his next story.” (Original tweet.)
- “Marco Rubio couldn't even respond properly to President Obama's State of the Union Speech without pouring sweat & chugging water. He choked!” (Original tweet.)
- “Watch Kasich squirm—if he is not truthful in his negative ads I will sue him just for fun!” (Original tweet.)
This is what we saw as power. By excluding outsiders, we were more included. And boy, how we wanted to be included. We did anything to be in on the joke.
- “Ben Sasse looks more like a gym rat than a U.S. Senator. How did he ever get elected?” (Original tweet.)
- “Jeb Bush…had to bring in mommy to take a slap at me.” (Original tweet.)
- “I ran Lindsay Graham out of the race like a little boy.” (Original tweet.)
- “Mitt Romney choked like a dog.” (Original tweet.)
I spoke with an old friend from high school the other day. One of the witty ones. He left town a long time ago.
“I remember people wanting to be my friend,” he started. “Because they knew at least they wouldn’t be on the receiving end of my criticism.”
I can’t help but wonder how much of this is true now. How many marginalized communities are following Donald Trump because perhaps self-preservation dictates that you should take the side of the bully.
- “Did Bernie go home and go to sleep?” (Original tweet.)
- “Hillary Clinton taking the day off again, she needs the rest. Sleep well, Hillary—see you at the debate!” (Original tweet.)
- “Fake tears Chuck Schumer!” (Original tweet.)
- “Did Hillary Clinton ever apologize for receiving the answers to the debate? Just asking!” (Original tweet.)
But, what is real strength? What is real power? What is real intellect? It’s certainly none of the above. And yet, it’s so easy to hide behind barbed remarks and linguistic acrobatics, as Trump is so wont to do.
Fast forward to now.
Tonight. The first presidential debate.
We know Trump’s going to be vicious. That’s his M.O. In an article on CNN titled, “The Best Debate Advice Joe Biden Will Ever Get,” debate expert Todd Graham called Trump’s communication style “a combination of humor, dominance and rudeness.” He then went on to say that we can expect Trump to use the following five strategies in the debate tonight:
- Lie excessively
- Blame others through whataboutism
- Use exaggerated fear appeals
And his base loves it.
That’s why it's so hard to combat: you aren’t just convincing a population of people that their candidate is morally corrupt—you have to essentially convince them that their own morals are corrupt, too.
By insulting Trump’s communication style, we’re insulting theirs. This is how rural America communicates. This is “telling it like it is.”
And therefore, anything less than “humor, dominance and rudeness”…is seen as weakness.
Except it’s actually quite the opposite.
Trash talking is a form of deflection.
Throwing negative attention onto somebody else removes the focus on any perceived ineptitudes of your own. It’s a manipulation tactic; a way to seem “bigger than thou,” especially when you are not.
It’s all smoke and mirrors—and Trump will be taking full advantage tonight.
However, as someone who grew up learning how to jab back, I can tell you it’s going to be important for Biden to do so…and I believe he will. His confidence needs to match Trump’s bluster. But the key is going to be in going for positive comebacks—not negative ones.
Negative comebacks are what we see Trump doing: bullying, ridicule, meanness, spite. If Joe goes to that level, he’s going to seem small, temperamental, and angry. Positive comebacks, on the other hand, will be about making good-natured jokes, finding humor in stating the obvious, and making Trump seem ridiculous in his own craziness and anger—like he is so above Trump, he can’t even be touched by him.
In other words, he doesn’t have to just seem bigger than thou—he actually needs to BE it.
Or as the lyrics from my favorite Justin Timberlake song so aptly put it:
“When you're sitting on the top, it's hard to hear you from way up here
Now I saw you tryna act cute on TV, just let me clear the air
We missed you on the charts last week
Damn, that's right, you wasn't there.”
Like, really—that’s Joey's theme song right now. Those lyrics could not be more perfect for debating against a reality TV star whom you’re whooping in the polls.
But rest-assured, Trump’s going to be taking aggressive swipes tonight—but if he isn’t careful, he might find himself on the losing end of an 8-Mile rap-battle situation. I know you know that scene. Because yes, you can have bluster, and yes you can have bravado, but if you’re up there bullying a candidate about superficial flaws like a stutter, then you’re gonna make it really easy to have the wind taken right out of your sails.
If I were debating Donald Trump tonight, I’d Eminem the christ out of this chump. “This guy ain’t no motherfucking MC, I know everything he’s got to say against me.”
I do have a stutter.
I am a progressive Democrat.
I do support Black Lives Matter.
I am three years older than you.
And yeah, you’re damn right I grew up in Scranton without billions of dollars.
So what else you got, Don? Here, tell these people something they don’t know about me.
I’d pull the truth onto my side—not the truth about him, but the truth about me—and beat him to his own arguments. And then I’d clobber him over the head with hyper-specific facts about him that show both the president’s crumbling castle, as well as my own perfectly-capable grasp of the situation.
Because I know something about you, Donald…
You don’t read books.
You call our war heroes suckers.
You’ve lied five times already in this debate.
You’ve not agreed to a peaceful transfer of power.
You don’t pay taxes like the rest of us.
And you’re about to be the first president in 28 years who isn’t going to win re-election.
What are you even doing here, bro?
And then watch in amazement as Trump becomes the one who stutters.
Right before Joe Biden looks over at Don Jr. in the audience and whispers:
“Hey, Don…there’s your dad.”