One aftermath of Donald Trump’s frightening and aberrant debate performance was that his nakedly unshackled sociopathy virtually obliterated conventional political analysis. Still, this was more than a nauseating gut-punch to human decency—it was a pivotal marker in what is, surely, the most crucial presidential campaign in living memory. So, before we go on to the larger implications for American democracy, a verdict on the implications for the election.
He won the night by dispelling Trump’s thuggish assertions of senility.
He won by requiring Trump to give America an unhinged 90 minutes of indecent self-exposure.
He won by filling what space he could with a conventional, often crisp, recitation of his central message.
He won by espousing that formerly unquestioned sine qua non of democracy that contestants accept the will of the electorate.
He won by speaking directly to Americans through the camera about their core concerns.
He won by saying of Trump’s callous response to over 200,000 dead from COVID-19: “It is what it is because you are who you are.”
He won because Trump is, indeed, inescapably who he is. He won because Trump’s repulsive persona inevitably alienated the voters he most needs—wavering Republicans and the increasingly shrinking number of undecided voters. He won because Trump invited white supremacists to “stand by”; encouraged his supporters to intimidate in-person voters; and virtually promised that he will attempt to reverse the results of a democratic election.
Most of all, Biden won because no person whose judgment isn’t warped by hate and fear could watch Trump and see a normal person they would want for a neighbor, coworker, or friend—let alone as a president to whom they would entrust with the future of their family or their country.
Those commentators who treated this event as a debacle shared by two candidates and the moderator badly missed the point. Jack Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could not have controlled an opponent who lives outside the boundaries of sane human conduct. Nor could Walter Cronkite have moderated a debate in which one of the contestants cannot see any other human being beyond the only one he cares about. Those things, too, sent a message to the audience.
So, yes, Biden won. Trump’s greatest hope is that an undifferentiated disgust with the spectacle he provoked causes more undecided voters to refrain from voting then will vote for Biden. That is a corrosive attack on the bonds of civility and decency which are the glue of our democratic compact.
That, of course, is the ultimate tragedy of this debate. Biden won, but our country lost something precious—the hope of an exchange of ideas which leads to a peaceful transition of power. We have now internalized the pathology of a man who will overturn an election if he can. It is no longer alarmist to say that America’s president threatens us with fascism, for he is telling us that he does. The history of authoritarianism is replete with demagogues who have claimed, as Trump did, that a democratic election is “going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen.”
What America has never seen is a president bent on plunging us into such poisonous dysfunction. We should pray that our country not only rejects him, but survives him.