All Americans, whatever their political inclinations, should make time to watch Tuesday night’s presidential debate, and every minute of the two forthcoming debates.
President Trump’s performance on the debate stage was a national disgrace. His refusal to condemn white supremacists, or to pledge that he will accept the results of the election, betrayed the people who entrusted him with the highest office in the land. Every American has a responsibility to look and listen and take the full measure of the man. Ignorance can no longer be a tenable excuse. Conservatives in pursuit of long-cherished policy goals can no longer avoid the reality that Mr. Trump is vandalizing the principles and integrity of our democracy.
It’s a tired frame, but consider how Americans would judge a foreign election where the incumbent president scorned the democratic process as a fraud and called on an armed, violent, white supremacist group to “stand by” to engage with his political rivals.
The debate was excruciating to watch for anyone who loves this country, because of the mirror it held up to the United States in 2020: a nation unmoored from whatever was left of its civil political traditions, awash in conspiratorial disinformation, incapable of agreeing on what is true and what are lies, paralyzed by the horror of a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands and beholden to a political system that doesn’t reflect the majority of the country.
The debate featured one politician trying his best to do his job, trying to bring some normalcy to America’s battered public square, and one politician who seemed incapable of self-control — petulant, self-centered, rageful.
After five years of conditioning, the president’s ceaseless lies, insults and abuse were no less breathtaking to behold. Mr. Trump doesn’t care if you think he’s corrupt, incompetent and self-centered. He just wants you to think everyone else is just as bad, and that he’s the only one brave enough to tell it to you straight. It is an effort to dull Americans’ sense of right and wrong, making them question reality itself and, eventually, driving them to tune out.
Yet there was a new sense of desperation in Mr. Trump’s performance. He knows, as most observers do, that he is on track to lose the election. His solution to that predicament is not to reach out to more voters, like a normal president would.
Instead he spent the debate as he has spent the past several months: claiming the election will not be legitimate unless he wins. This threat to the democratic process is no less real because it is a threat made in public.
At one point the moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, asked Mr. Trump if he was willing to condemn the white supremacists and right-wing militants who have grown emboldened under his administration — specifically, a group called the Proud Boys who have been involved in numerous street fights in the past few years. (“We will kill you. That’s the Proud Boys in a nutshell,” their founder said.)
It was the slowest, fattest softball a president could be tossed. Once again, Mr. Trump whiffed. “Proud Boys?” Mr. Trump said. “Stand back and stand by,” before pivoting to accuse left-wing agitators of being the true threat. (False, according to the F.B.I.)
The campaign tried to walk back the “stand by” comment on Wednesday, but a different message had already been received: “This makes me so happy,” one Proud Boy wrote in an online forum. “Well sir! We’re ready!!”
Mr. Wallace later asked both candidates to commit to respect the outcome of the election. The fact that such a promise needed to be extracted in the first place is alarming. More ominous was that only one candidate, Joe Biden, agreed to it. Mr. Trump used the opportunity to warn of a “fraudulent election,” falsely claiming that mail-in ballots would be corrupted — again, despite his own F.B.I. saying there is no evidence of any fraud in mail ballots. Undeterred, Mr. Trump called on his supporters to “go into the poll and watch very carefully” — in other words, to intimidate voters in areas where Mr. Biden is likely to draw more support.
Should all else fail, Mr. Trump said that the election will be decided by the Supreme Court — which will most likely have a full complement of nine members by Election Day. The court will “look at the ballots,” Mr. Trump said. It bears repeating that it is not the court’s job to decide the election.
No one handled himself perfectly on Tuesday night. But that acknowledgment is by no means an equivalence. Mr. Biden exhibited remarkable restraint given Mr. Trump’s unwillingness to actually debate.
As the dust settled, there were calls for Mr. Biden to skip the rest of the debates. That is an understandable reaction; Mr. Trump’s behavior makes it essentially impossible to have a civil, substantive conversation.
But that is the exact opposite of what needs to happen. Mr. Biden will show up for all of the remaining debates, and Americans should too. Donald Trump is their president. They need to face him, and the reckoning he has brought on the Republic.
Most of all, they need to vote. In person, by mail — however they can, and as soon as they can. Mr. Trump wants Americans to be either too disgusted or too afraid to cast their ballots. Throughout the nation’s history, tens of millions of Americans have been made to feel this way. They never gave up the fight for a fairer and freer democracy. Neither should Americans today. The best response to a would-be autocrat like Donald Trump, and the only way to begin to extricate the country from this long nightmare, is to show up and be counted.