What Trump will do at Tuesday's debate

Story highlights

  • Michael D'Antonio: At CNN's GOP debate, expect the usual Donald Trump strategy: emotional extremism, fearmongering and false 'facts'
  • He says his style-not-substance persona -- disrespectul, defamatory -- is partly calculated and partly unstoppable urge; it's working for him

Michael D'Antonio is the author of the new book "Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success" (St. Martin's Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)As the GOP presidential campaign careens toward Tuesday night's debate on CNN, the big question on our minds must be: What should we expect of Donald Trump? The answer can be found in his record of emotional extremism, fear-mongering and fact-challenged speech.

Michael D'Antonio
In the campaign thus far, Trump has been the opposite of the cool, "no drama" Obama, offering us instead hot, even angry, rhetoric and the most emotional of performances He has consistently inflamed Americans' fears and attempted to divide us into "us" and "them." The good people support him and the bad people do not. It's a method that can make a political rally feel like a tent revival, and it leaves little doubt in the minds of those who attend.
Trump showed his style at the very start, with an announcement address in which he called undocumented Mexican immigrants "rapists" and "killers" and "drug dealers" who must be deported by the millions and kept out by a giant wall. (He added nuance to this attack by saying "some, I assume, are good people.")
    Trump has since slandered African Americans by spreading the false assertion that black assailants killed 81% of white murder victims. In fact 82% of white victims are killed by people of their own race. He has also vilified the news media, the voters of Iowa and the world's 1.6 billion Muslims, whom he says he would temporarily bar from entering the United States because of their faith.
    On the campaign trail, Trump has made his case with a style that has never before been seen in modern presidential politics. A master of gesture and expressions, Trump has refined his dramatic skills over a 40-year career in the public eye and understands every element of performance, from wardrobe and make-up to cadence and tone.
    He shapes his face into oversized expressions of glee, menace, disgust and disdain. Trump's hands and body are tools as well. He once told me he is quite proud of the flicking gesture -- he calls it "The Cobra" -- which he used to "fire" people on his TV show "The Apprentice."
    At rallies and speeches, he acts out his remarks. To illustrate his doubts about a story Ben Carson told, Trump pretended to be a young Carson lunging repeatedly at the crowd with a knife. He then stepped away from the lectern to play the role of Carson's target. When he wanted to mock a reporter who has a disability, he contorted himself into a bully's caricature, waved his hand spastically and changed his voice to make himself sound like he was struggling to speak.
    In addition to mocking them, Trump likes to call his opponents and critics names -- "stupid" and "dumb" are favorites -- and smears them with distortions. On the day when he did his Carson performance, he also said his opponent's "pathological" temper was a problem similar to pedophilia. "You don't cure a child molester," said Trump. "There's no cure for it. Pathological, there's no cure for that."
    This is the Trump style and though he has toned it down in formal setting, it seems to be an irresistible urge. In previous debates, Trump has used his face and body in striking ways. When speaking, he has opened his arms widely, to take up space and signal dominance and jabbed accusing fingers at his opponents. When listening to others, he shown unmistakable signs of impatience and incredulity, all but mouthing the words, "Get a load of this!"
    Catching out Trump on this disrespect is nearly impossible because he is willing to insist that what others see, or hear, or read, just isn't there. At a previous debate, he insisted "I never said this" when asked about labeling his opponent Marco Rubio as the "personal senator" of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The denial worked -- his questioner apologized -- even though Trump's campaign website used precisely those works to describe Rubio (his questioner later pointed this out). In other debate moments, Trump has:
    -- Denied his well-established interest in casino gambling in Florida
    -- Claimed "I got to know" Vladimir Putin "very well" because the "60 Minutes" program presented them both on the same broadcast
    -- Deflected a question about his history of demeaning women critics by joking that he has insulted "only Rosie O'Donnell."
    -- Sneered at opponent Rand Paul's appearance; "I never attacked him on his looks and believe me, there's plenty of subject matter right there."
    When it comes to substance, Trump is not inclined to take apart a problem such as terrorism by discussing root causes or offering a complex strategy. He is more about emotionally resonant tactics -- "bomb the **** out of them" -- and declarations of his own innate brilliance. Trump has also been willing to play fast and loose in a way that his opponents will not.
    He has the worst record of all 12 GOPers whose statements are checked out by the Pulitzer Prize winning website Politicfact.com. Of the 72 Trump statements checked, not one has been judged completely true. Five were deemed "mostly true." The rest, 67 in all, were put in categories ranging from "half true" to "pants on fire" lies.
    Of course, Politifact.com is not favored by Trump supporters because it is part of the press, which he tells us is the enemy. And Trump does not apologize, even for flaming deceptions; he prefers to double-down on his outrageous statements rather than refine them. For example, he sticks by his thoroughly debunked claim that he saw thousands of Muslims celebrating the 9/11 attacks in New Jersey.
    One notable exception to his refusal to modify his statements was his decision to make an exception for American citizens when it comes to his proposed ban on Muslims entering the country. Originally they were also to be banned, even from coming home to America.
    But we should not expect more of that -- for a new, reasonable Trump to emerge in the debate. His method gave him an almost instant lead in the polls, and it has helped him to maintain his standing for five months. Why give up now?