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Engage or Proceed? Debating Trump, the Unpredictable Aggressor

“The reason that someone like Trump won the presidency and may win again is that when things are unstable and uncertain, people want strong narcissistic leaders,” Dr. Campbell said. “So you say, ‘Here’s my stability plan.’”

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Dorothy L. Espelage, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill whose research focuses on adolescent bullying, said Mr. Trump is similar to the sort of “Machiavellian bully” who exhibits “heightened narcissism and severe insecurity” and who targets weaker children in the playground.

“We tell kids not to engage with that sort of bully,” she said.

But if you have to engage, she said, it’s important to keep hold of your emotions and recognize that your opponent will never admit to being wrong. So you have to deploy cool dispassion while challenging the behavior.

“I study students with disabilities,” she said, and she still remembers with horror the moment in the 2016 campaign when Mr. Trump mocked a disabled reporter. “I would say to him, ‘What is your point? Enough is enough. What’s your point, President Trump? It sounds like you’re really getting yourself worked up.’”

Jay Carney, a former press secretary for President Barack Obama who worked as a spokesman for Vice President Biden and is now the senior vice president for global corporate affairs at Amazon, said that Mr. Biden should avoid getting into “an insult exchange” with the president.

“The fact that the president likes to insult his opponents, or his critics, or people in general, is not new information to voters, and it’s not going to move them,” Mr. Carney said. “I think Biden’s task will be to quickly divert to something that matters to voters” — the coronavirus, the economy, health insurance.

What about when he exaggerates, distorts the truth, makes false accusations, lies? Should Mr. Biden ignore him, or double down?

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