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Opinion | For the Sake of Democracy, Cancel the Trump-Biden Debates

He said the election was “rigged.” He used the words “fraud” and “fraudulent.” He insisted that the Democrats would “cheat.” He cast mail-in ballots, a crucial alternative in the midst of a pandemic, as an enormous scam. He raised the specter of “tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated.”

He said that he was “counting on” Supreme Court justices — including, if all goes according to his and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plans, three whom he appointed — “to look at the ballots.” He ducked a question from the moderator, Chris Wallace, about whether he would pledge not to declare victory “until the election has been independently certified.” He gave every indication that he would challenge any outcome not to his liking.

He also repeated previous appeals to his supporters to go to the polls to watch for suspicious conduct. That scenario smacks of voter intimidation. It’s also a recipe for violence, especially when you add the ingredient of the Proud Boys, whom he told to “stand by.”

All of that was on top of a florid show of flamboyant nastiness that was equally tactical — and plenty corrosive on its own. Trump figures that if he demoralizes the electorate, that redounds to his benefit, and he’s right. That has long been his way: to treat Americans to a spectacle so coarse and dark that its ugliness befogs everything and befouls everyone. He looks horrible, but nobody else looks much better.

But while his posture toward Biden was grotesque, it was also an exaggeration of familiar political feuding. His attack on American democracy, on the other hand, was inexcusable and impermissible. The commission — a bipartisan nonprofit group that has run presidential debates since the ’80s — should respond accordingly.

I can hear the objections: That will seem biased. That will seem partisan. Best to err on the side of detachment.

But that sort of hesitancy prevented officials in President Barack Obama’s administration from publicizing what they knew about Russian interference in the 2016 election until it was over. That kind of reluctance discouraged journalists from boycotting White House news briefings when they should have, toward the very start of the Trump administration.

Trump continues to take a wrecking ball to vital American institutions and sacred American traditions. He did it on Tuesday night to the process by which we choose the person who will shape the country’s future and lead us into it. To give him a stage that grand again is to commit civic suicide.

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