I have covered presidential debates for thirty-two years and what I saw Tuesday night in Cleveland, Ohio was not a debate, but rather a disaster that provoked supreme pity and shame. The only one responsible was the chaotic president Donald Trump who, unable to decently exchange ideas turned to interruptions, childish taunts, base personal attacks, shameless lies and, also, a nod to white supremacists, telling them to “stand back and stand by.”
In addition to pity and shame there was a moment when I felt repulsion, like for example, when the aspiring Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, was talking about his veteran son who died, Beau Biden, and Trump interrupted him to launch an attack against the other Biden son, Hunter, saying that he was discharged from the military for using cocaine. Biden, turning his gaze to the viewer, showed humanity, decency, and a father’s love, declaring that his son had an addiction problem, like what occurs in so many families, but he overcame it.
The “bully in chief” was on display in his maximum splendor. Is anyone surprised that Trump demonstrated shameful conduct and trampled once again on the office of the presidency of the United States? Sadly, no.
Trump was simply speaking to his base, because I doubt very much that in his spectacle he has convinced any undecided voters, women, independents, or Republicans disaffected with his administration.
Trump came out swinging, offering a hit parade of lies, exaggerations, and conspiracy theories on a range of topics, from the economy to his laughable tax payments, to even climate change.
And once again he minimized the devastation COVID-19 has had on U.S. families, while the death roll rises beyond 205,000.
For most of the night Trump portrayed himself as a victim, even of Biden, and once again referred to his conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was spying on him before and after the 2016 election.
But two of the moments that most succinctly capture the chaos in which Trump likes to operate was when the moderator, Chris Wallace, asked Trump if he would condemn white supremacist and militias that, according to his very own FBI, are responsible for violence in the demonstrations in some cities across the country, as well as domestic terrorism. Trump asked Wallace to name one and Biden mentioned the Proud Boys, a hate group according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Trump responded, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” Was it a message for them to be ready to fight over the results of the November 3 election if they don’t favor Trump?
The other was when Trump once again refused to state whether he would accept the results of the election and if he would ask his supporters to remain calm. In each instance, he indicated the opposite. He dedicated himself to continuing to foment doubts about the veracity of the electoral system, and talking about rampant “fraud” that only exists in his head, with the goal of continuing to generate more fear among the people already affected by the pandemic, and inciting his followers. Trump warned us once again that he will not abide by the results of the election if they do not go his way.
Before the debate began, there were already signs of what route Trump would take.
Although Tuesday’s debate did not touch on the theme of immigration, the Washington Post reported exclusively, minutes before the event, that ICE would begin carrying out selective raids in so-called sanctuary cities led by Democrats. These are the cities where local authorities do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities because they consider it to be counterproductive, since every time fear is generated among immigrant residents they decline to collaborate with police as witnesses or victims of crimes. But the topic of sanctuary cities is one of Trump’s favorites when it’s time to exploit it for electoral reasons.
Since he’s backed into a corner over the embarrassing tax issue, he brought up his favorite scapegoat, immigrants, to divert attention. And in fact, the same article in the Post cites a source saying that more than a huge operation for ICE, the decision to carry out these raids has a political goal, to connect with the message of the presidential campaign.
Despite the chaotic debate, the contrasts between a president perennially overburdened because his meanness knows no limits—even in this moment of crisis the nation is living due to the pandemic, with more than 205,000 deaths and the domino effect on the economy, lives, and emotional stability of families—and candidate Biden, who without being perfect, offers an aura of calm, decency, experience and stability that is so badly needed.
The question is, who will prevail in the elections.