Lurking behind a shameful debate, a strategy built on chaos

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, October 4, 2020.

It’s widely agreed that Tuesday’s faceoff between incumbent Donald Trump and challenger Joseph R. Biden Jr. was the worst U.S. presidential debate in history. It also marked a low point in American political culture. So shambolic, so grating, so disappointing, so ridiculous it was not only almost impossible to watch, it left me feeling sick to my stomach.

The debate changed nothing. Biden still appears to be winning. Trump appeared to do nothing to win over those suburban women his campaign so covets.

But here is what did change. The debate made it obvious Trump has, once and for all, stopped running against Biden.

Instead, he is running against the idea of American democracy itself.

I have previously written in this space about my confidence in the resiliency and maturity of democracy in the United States; about the ability of its institutions to withstand the inevitable speed bumps that would come with a Trump presidency.

What I failed to account for, because it was beyond imaginable to contemplate, was Trump’s singular capacity to hollow out the institution of the presidency itself, by turning against the very democratic system that elevated him to the position in 2016.

By the time Trump’s term is done, the presidency will be so diminished that even someone as feeble as Biden will be able to occupy it. (And let us be clear: While this was a disgraceful night for Trump, it was no great showing for Biden either.)

Yes, admittedly, others who have come before Trump have helped to muddy things. From Clinton’s sexual misconduct through Bush’s dishonesty to Nixon’s prolific tape recordings, history, at times, has not been kind to the human dimension of the institution of the presidency.

But never has a president made it so explicitly his strategy to disrupt and discredit the presidential vote itself.

“This is not going to end well,” Trump said repeatedly in discussing the election. Is this a prediction? Or is it a threat?

Horrifyingly, the president’s behaviour in recent weeks suggests the latter.

In August, Trump told Fox News’s Sean Hannity that he planned to send law enforcement to polling locations. His plans have since escalated to include organizing an “Army for Trump’s Election-Security Operation.” In mid-September, on the second day of early voting in Fairfax, Virginia, a group of Trump supporters blocked the entrance to a polling location. It is not hard to see how all this might end badly.

These activities go wildly beyond the traditional election-day tradition of poll-watching, a tradition with its own problematic history. In 2018, the courts lifted a 30-year restriction on the Republican National Committee that had prevented them from any kind of poll-watching activity, after they were found guilty of intimidating voters in the 1980s.

If the courts think that Trump-era Republicans will play by the rules, they better think again.

The same goes for the Debate Commission and Vice President Biden. There is no chance the vague assurances of improvements or reforms from the federal, bipartisan commission will change a thing. What possible fix can there be when one actor is purely a nihilist, bent on chaos and destruction?

Given the rumblings of those who feel Biden should recuse himself from the next debates altogether and the fact Trump has himself been diagnosed with COVID-19, Tuesday’s showing may end up being the only debate between the two. We can only hope.

Looking ahead, there is good reason to fear what such an irresponsible actor as Trump might do come voting day on Nov. 3. Experts predict there will be an “overtime count” as swing states count a higher-than-average number of mail-in ballots, and there may be no clear victor on election night. With a president who refuses to concede, and an audience primed to expect the tidy resolution of an “Apprentice” episode, anything might happen.

And it will be in that moment that America, her people and her institutions, will be put to their real test. When the challenge to their democracy is no longer a speed bump but rather a sinkhole of proportions never before seen, just how resilient and mature will their democracy be?

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jimewatt