The First Presidential Debate Was an Alarm Call for American Democracy

As the reverberations from Tuesday night’s shambolic Presidential debate echoed around Washington on Wednesday, Senator Tim Scott, of South Carolina, the sole Black Republican in the upper house of Congress, called on President Donald Trump to correct his call for the Proud Boys—a far-right group that glorifies violence—to “stand back and stand by.” Speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill, Scott suggested that Trump had spoken in error. “White supremacy should be denounced at every turn,” Scott said. “I think the President misspoke, and he needs to correct it.”

Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, defended Trump, claiming that the President did, in fact, denounce white-supremacist groups after the debate’s moderator, Chris Wallace, of Fox News, gave him the opportunity to do so. “How many times does he have to say it?” McCarthy said. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday afternoon, Trump himself pleaded ignorance, even as he adopted different language. “I don’t know who the Proud Boys are,” he said. “I mean, you’ll have to give me a definition, because I really don’t know who they are. I can only say they have to stand down. Let law enforcement do their work.”

It’s a frequent Trump tactic to claim he doesn’t know objectionable people or groups that ally themselves with him. Given the chaos that he unleashed inside the Cleveland Clinic’s Samson Pavilion on Tuesday night, with his constant interrupting and hectoring, it was perhaps inevitable that Trump would have some cleanup to do afterward. But the effort to correct himself, if that is what his comments on Wednesday amounted to, can’t disguise the over-all impression he gave at the debate: one of an embattled President who is flirting with authoritarianism and doing all he can to undermine a fair election. Given everything else he said, and his belligerent manner throughout, the discussion about whether he meant to say “stand down” instead of “stand by” is almost beside the point. The message that came out of Cleveland is that Trump has no intention of surrendering power willingly, and that his primary strategy now is to disrupt the election and its aftermath.

To grasp how high the stakes are, it’s necessary only to look around. For weeks now, Trump has been acting like he believes he is going to lose on November 3rd unless he can upend the election, suppress votes for his opponent, and, if necessary, mobilize his supporters to contest the outcome. He told Sean Hannity—primus inter pares among the President’s media acolytes—that he would deploy sheriffs and other law-enforcement officers to monitor polling stations. At a recent rally in North Carolina, he told his own supporters that it was their job to “watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing” that he said Democrats will do at the polls. In addition to adopting this sort of incendiary language, Trump has pointedly refused to say that he will accept the election result and accede to a peaceful transfer of power if he should lose.

It may be tempting to dismiss all this as Trumpian bluster. But take a look at the video posted by the Trump campaign on Facebook a week and a half ago. Speaking close to the camera, Donald Trump, Jr., a combative gun enthusiast who serves as an unofficial liaison to the alt-right, declares, “The radical left are laying the groundwork to steal this election from my father. . . . They are planting stories that President Trump will have a landslide lead on Election Night but will lose when they finish counting the mail-in ballots. Their plan is to add millions of fraudulent ballots that can cancel your vote and overturn the election. We cannot let that happen. We need every able-bodied man, woman to join Army for Trump’s Election-Security Operation. . . . President Trump is going to win. Don’t let them steal it.”

If any prominent member of a right-wing populist political group, in any country, talks openly about setting up an election “army,” it should set off alarm bells, especially if that group’s candidate is struggling in the polls and saying similar things himself. At numerous points during Tuesday’s debate, Trump repeated his unfounded claims about widespread voter fraud, suggesting that the Democrats were trying to steal the election. And, once again, he refused to say that he’d accept the election’s result and tell his supporters to do the same. At the end of the debate, Wallace brought up the possibility of a period after November 3rd during which some states will still be counting mail-in ballots and the result won’t yet be clear. He asked Trump if, in such a period, he would urge his supporters “to stay calm” and “not to engage in any civil unrest.” Rather than responding positively to this request, and saying something reassuring, the President went back to his claims of rampant voter fraud, and said, “If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.”

Even as some Republican senators professed not to know what Trump was really doing at the debate, members of the Proud Boys and other alt-right groups were in no doubt. “Starting Tuesday night and continuing Wednesday, Trump’s comments were enshrined in memes, including one depicting Trump in one of the Proud Boys’ signature polo shirts,” the Washington Post reported. “Another meme showed Trump’s quote alongside an image of bearded men carrying American flags and appearing to prepare for a fight. A third incorporated ‘STAND BACK AND STAND BY’ into the group’s logo.”

Whether or not the next two Presidential debates occur as planned—and they probably will—American democracy will be in serious peril for as long as Trump remains in the White House. To survive his attacks, and ultimately move beyond him, it will have to assert itself vigorously in the weeks ahead.


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