Donald Trump faces a debate trap

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Michael Brendan Dougherty, senior correspondent for The Week and former Business Insider politics editor, says the conventional wisdom is wrong: Trump doesn’t need to tone it down in tonight’s debate. If he wants to win, he has to dial up the aggression:

“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.”

I think this is right. Trump’s bugs are also his features, and many of the people telling him to tone it down now are the same people who told him (incorrectly) that he needed to tone it down to win the primary.

Trump doesn’t need to seem normal and safe; he needs to make the case that it is *worth* taking the risk of his presidency. The last thing he should do is appear low-energy.

But Dougherty’s advice also reflects how hard it will be for Trump to use the debate to his advantage.

Dougherty argues Trump needs to deploy “controlled aggression” that puts Clinton and the whole establishment that backs her on the defensive. But when Trump feels attacked, he does not do “controlled aggression” well.

High-energy Trump is prone to mistakes — mistakes that are more likely to alienate general election voters than primary voters, and mistakes that are more likely to be off-putting when they occur opposite a woman opponent than a field of men.

Unlike in March, Trump won’t be able to brag about his big his dick is in this debate without penalty.

Maybe Trump will be able to thread the needle of being bombastic without alienating voters already worried about his temperament and his competence. But there’s nothing in his track record that suggests he’s up to the task.

This is an editorial. The opinions and conclusions expressed above are those of the author.

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