High School Debate Teams Don’t Think Much of Trump’s Style

March 4, 2016, 4:16 PM UTC
GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Detroit
Photograph by Chip Somodevilla — Getty Images

Donald Trump has dismissed fellow White House hopefuls as liars, journalists as disgusting people, and Mexican immigrants as rapists with a belligerent public speaking style that has helped catapult him to the front of the Republican pack.

The verbal tactics, on display in Thursday night’s debate in Detroit, have given the billionaire real estate developer front-runner status in early primary contests and opinion polls of U.S. Republican voters. But they would not last long on an academic debate stage, according to high school and college competitors and their coaches.

“He would last one tournament and then be removed from the team,” said Eric Di Michele, coach of the speech and debate team at Regis High School in New York, one of the country’s top-ranked teams. “This kind of ad hominem attack followed by insults, I’ve never seen it.”

Ad hominem attacks, a Latin phrase meaning directed at a person rather than an idea, have long been a staple of the U.S. campaign trail where candidates are selling themselves as much as their ideas to voters. Referring to his closest rivals to be the Republican presidential nominee in November’s election, Trump has repeatedly called U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas a “liar” and dismissed Senator Marco Rubio of Florida as “little Marco.”


His wins in the early nominating contests have prompted some of his rivals to take a similar approach. Cruz has labeled Trump “profane” and “vulgar.” Rubio has poked fun at Trump’s tan, suggested he urinated in his pants and rolled out a sexual double entendre about the size of his hands.

With a flourish, Trump kicked back at that on Thursday night, flashing his hands at the audience and asking, “Look at those hands. Are they small hands?” before dismissing any suggestion he might be small elsewhere. “I guarantee you there is no problem.”

Di Michele called it “a surreal moment.”

“In 34 years of coaching debate, I’ve never seen any debater reference the size of any part of his anatomy,” he said.

Asked in Thursday’s debate about his own use of personal attacks, Rubio argued, “For the last year, Donald Trump has basically mocked everybody … If there’s anyone who’s ever deserved to be attacked that way it’s Donald Trump.”

Of the remaining Republican candidates, Ohio Governor John Kasich has steered away from the personal, sticking doggedly to policy amid Thursday night’s sometimes chaotic exchanges.

Trump’s language, admired by his supporters as frank, has drawn wide criticism for its crude insults. Republican 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney attacked Trump’s style as well as his policies in a speech on Thursday, citing “the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics.”

In schools, the campaign antics have inspired academic debaters to become more civilized.

“That sort of coarse language has made people more critical of the political parties,” said Charlie Barton, a 17-year-old Regis senior debater. “What we’ve seen is a greater shift away from that sort of rhetoric.”

No Lincoln-Douglas Debate

Academic debating, also known as forensics, has a long history in the U.S. and takes much of its form and inspiration from politics. Indeed, one style of debating is named after the storied 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, which put the future president on the national stage.

But the judging in academic debating is relentlessly focused on facts; students study examples and background before making their cases. The discipline can bear as much resemblance to current televised presidential debates as Greco-Roman wrestling does to chair-throwing WWE spectacles.

“They are less like politicians and more like lawyers, because they are not necessarily going for a vote on personality, they are arguing that their case is correct,” said Derek Yuill, the speech and debate coach at Gabrielino High School in San Gabriel, California, a top-ranked U.S. forensics team.

Some young debaters have watched the Republican matchups more as an example of what not to do.

“I really wish I could take on Donald Trump in some kind of debate round, because he especially among the candidates would not fare well in academic debate,” said Jacqueline Dang, a 17-year-old senior at Gabrielino. “He doesn’t seem to have any kind of evidence or numbers to substantiate his claims, other than his poll numbers.”

College debaters have also been watching Trump’s performance with bemusement, said Connie Lee, 18, the president of Dartmouth College’s Parliamentary Debate Team.

“The name-calling and the ad hominem attacks get made fun of” at debate-watching parties, Lee said. She said that while many collegiate debaters are politically liberal, they still respect skilled oratory from conservatives when they see it.

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Cruz, who holds a spot on Princeton University’s debate hall of fame, is admired for his abilities.

“There are jokes about ambitious debaters being the next Ted Cruz,” Lee said.

A Trump spokeswoman said the campaign had no doubts about his debating ability. “According to all the online polls, Mr. Trump has performed exceptionally well and won all the debates,” spokeswoman Hope Hicks said by e-mail.

Despite giving poor marks for Trump’s debate performances, Gabrielino’s Yuill said he does tell his students to note how well Trump gets into the spotlight to convey his message: “That’s what I tell them, how important it is to get their attention.”

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