The presidential debates, for all their faults, play an essential role in our political process.
These “long-standing rituals of democracy,” as Bloomberg opinion writer Jonathan Bernstein recently called them, can certainly be lacking in substance. Historically, some memorable moments aside, they have largely become footnotes – minor, forgettable episodes amid the months-long grind that characterizes our national campaigns.
Nonetheless, as Bernstein wrote in a recent piece, “having the candidates come before the people on equal terms and respond to questions from the independent media isn’t so bad a symbol of democracy.”
“And there’s something to be said,” he continued, “for performing the rituals we have, whether or not they’re the best ones imaginable.”
Tuesday night’s debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was the worst imaginable iteration of this important civic ritual. It will undoubtedly be remembered, perhaps as the nadir of American political discourse in the still-young 21st century.
The fault for this lies squarely, and unequivocally, with Trump. We’ll forgo any attempt at a comprehensive recounting of his transgressions, which ranged from merely rude and unbecoming to truly unconscionable and frightening. Endless synopses and analysis about what transpired can be found elsewhere. And while the performances of Biden and moderator Chris Wallace certainly left much to be desired, they were not the ones to completely detonate any sense of decorum or decency.
We are compelled, however, to highlight one particularly troubling portion of Trump’s remarks that has garnered relatively little attention in the hours since Tuesday’s debacle concluded.
After earlier calling on white supremacists to “stand back and stand by,” Trump urged his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very closely” on Nov. 3. This naked call for disruption and intimidation came as he continued his unfounded, corrosive attack on voting by mail – part of a broader effort to delegitimize the results of an election that is, in many places, already underway.
Trump has demonstrated, time and time again, that he is uninterested in – even contemptuous of – the awesome responsibility of the presidency. What does interest him, outside of watching television and playing golf, is utilizing the immense power of his office for the enrichment and personal gain of himself, his family and his hangers-on.
He has now also made abundantly clear that he views the basic machinery of our political system in the same way. Unwilling – and unable – to make an honest case to the American people for why he deserves reelection, he now sees the democratic process itself as an unacceptable impediment to his own objectives.
All of this tracks, of course, with Trump’s perverse, transactional worldview. To him, men and women who risk their lives in uniform are suckers. People who give of their time and energy in the spirit of service are fools. Empathy and compassion are wholly foreign concepts, the defining traits of losers.
Why, then, would Trump do something as stupid as putting centuries of tradition ahead of his own interest? Why would he do anything as demeaning as to humble himself before the American people without an assurance of a favorable outcome?
Luckily for Trump, his cynical showmanship, unending gaslighting and dark appeals to the worst among us have drawn a devoted following to his cause. Now, it seems, he is more than willing – even eager – to employ those followers in his campaign of chaos.
Some will push back, suggesting the concerns expressed here are overblown, even hysterical – that this is simply another case of Trump being Trump.
This perspective willfully ignores the immense damage Trump’s words and conduct have already wrought – the dire effects of his extraordinary negligence.
The genie is out of the bottle. The fuse has already been lit. Even in the unlikely event Trump were to walk back from the brink, the flames he has fanned would burn beyond his control.
What’s left is for the American people to reject this president and his brand of politics so soundly as to leave no doubt over the outcome. Whether early, by mail or at the polls on Nov. 3, please make your voice heard – and respect the sacred right of others to do the same.