Sordid debate shows the risk to American democracy

Some 60 years have passed since the first televised debate between the two main candidates for the White House. Some of the sequels have been quotable, others have been sleeping pills, but none are as appalling as the one held in Ohio on Tuesday. Whether President Donald Trump’s interruptions were impulsive or calculated to destabilize Joe Biden, his Democratic opponent, they made for a fragmented and unpleasant evening that illuminated few Americans and disrupted many.

Despite all the weakness of the moderator and the ugliness of the crossfire, the debate has at least refined the choice at hand.

It is clear that Mr. Trump is operating on a back-to-business platform in a still partially closed economy. Mr. Biden is more vigilant in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. After a wave of police violence and protests against it, the president emphasizes public order. His opponent, with a nod to police reform, adds “justice” to this pair of abstract names.

As for Amy Coney Barrett, Mr. Trump’s candidate for the Supreme Court, men disagree both on the candidate and on the accuracy of her confirmation before the inauguration of the next president. The upcoming debates should bring out their differences on China and the rest of the world.

By far the darkest lesson of the night, however, is that fears for the election itself are justified. Mr. Trump didn’t just waver and cover up when asked if he would accept defeat in November. He also urged his supporters to go to the polling stations and “watch very carefully” because “bad things are happening”. The evidence that voter fraud is rife and disproportionately benefits Democrats is slim. But by stoking the idea, Mr. Trump is preparing a pretext to challenge any unfavorable outcome for him and encouraging his base to take matters into their own hands. “Dog Whistling” is the political language of such language, but it involves subtlety. Mr. Trump was blatant.

Video: Trump and Biden clash in rude presidential debate

And that doesn’t mean anything to his strangely ambiguous message to white nationalists. “Someone has to do something against Antifa and the left,” his formulation of the night, could be a general comment or something much darker. Anyway, the president had the opportunity to be clear in his condemnation of the far right and did not take it. Snapshot polls suggest Mr. Biden, though often seemingly frail and angry, “won” the debate. But no one who cares about American democracy can have passed away feeling anything but nauseous.

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Commentators often question Mr. Trump’s indifference to voters who are not already with him. He certainly did not appeal to them. The 2016 utility infrastructure protector has become much narrower in vision. Tonally, too, his rudeness was hardly suited to indecisive suburban voters. This is strange behavior for a man who hangs out in the polls.

But this line of criticism has always assumed that victory in the conventional sense was Mr. Trump’s goal. It seems more and more naive. The president may see a tainted election, perhaps resolved by the courts, as his best chance to stay in power. At the very least, if he can persuade a large minority of Americans that he has been cheated, that would pave the way for him or a relative to run as an aggrieved party in 2024.

Therefore, in a year of deadly contagion, state violence and economic carnage, none of these unrest is quite the biggest issue at stake in November. It is America’s democratic process itself. The worst presidential debate in memory was also the most disturbing. No one will have savored it more than the autocratic enemies of the nation.

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