How Trump Humiliated and Degraded American Democracy in His Most Shameful Way Yet

Trump and Biden on Tuesday night

By Umair Haque

First things first. That wasn’t a debate — it was a national disgrace, and a debacle. It was a humiliation for America on the global stage. And it was a horrific sign of things to come, at least if Trump manages to cling to power.
Americans often ask who “won” a Presidential debate. That question is less important, especially in deeply abnormal times like these, than what an aspiring authoritarian uses a debate stage to do. The signals he sends. The messages he delivers. And in this case, Trump’s message was clear.

We saw the ugly, astonishing spectacle of a President using a debate to attack the rudiments of democracy — from election to voting. And openly — openly — appear to call for violence, brutality, intimidation, and authoritarianism.

Americans have grown inured to Trump’s scandals, violence, and obscenity. So let put it to you bluntly. I have seen many, many societies collapse. But even I have rarely seen a head of state attack democracy and its fundamental institutions so openly, so aggressively, with such hostility.

Trump’s behaviour Tuesday night was so off-the-charts authoritarian that it is rare even in failing states. There is some level of decorum and normality that is observed, even in most collapsing societies. Trump dispensed with all of that, and delivered what is one of the most naked, hostile attacks on democracy that I have ever seen — and I’ve lived under genuine dictators. They tend to be kinder and more reserved than Trump was.

Trump’s strategy emerged early. It was, basically, to be a bully. He interrupted Biden at every possible opportunity, bellowing and shouting and sneering. He talked over the moderator, who, pathetically, was reduced to begging him to stop for a moment. That isn’t just rhetorics. An aspiring authoritarian’s behaviour are dead giveaways of his intentions and desires. Trump’s strategy of intimidating Biden was a microcosm of his attitude towards democracy in general. He wasn’t intimidating and shouting at Biden to say nice and gentle and wise things. He was being especially hostile, aggressive, and combative because that was his message.

Now, Biden did a good job. Especially for someone who has been open about struggling with a speech impediment, he conducted himself admirably. He kept his calm, retained his cool, focused on the facts and the issues, refused to be baited by Trump. He even landed a few blows. That said, it was clear that his prep team had failed to anticipate or prepare him well for what Trump began to do. Biden tended to stop speaking entirely when Trump went off on yet another rant. It’s not that that is a “good” thing or a “bad” thing — it is simply that Biden spoke less than Trump, who, it’s true, “dominated” the debate. But not in a good way.

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Trump’s interpersonal style by about halfway through debate was clear, especially to the women whom I was watching with. He was that guy. A classic abuser. Shouting, interrupting, sneering. Not letting anyone get a word in edgewise, make a point. Not listening to a thing, always on the attack. Trump was acting like a literal abuser — only in this case, he was abusing democracy itself. His shameful performance last night should be seen as another abuse of power, of yet another institution — this time, Presidential debates — degrading it into the dirt.

It was at this point that Trump really stepped into the muck, and began to hurl mud. He insulted Biden’s dead son — a soldier — and his living one. It was hard to watch a bully on national television denigrate and lie about his opposition’s dead child. Personal attacks? Of this nature? They tell us that Trump is a man without any honor whatsoever. Again, that is not just a rhetorical point. These clues, especially from authoritarians, are character testimony. And this one was to lead to a dramatic, bizarre, and nightmarish conclusion.

Biden made many good points, about the ways in which America was broken, what was needed to fix it, and so on. His plans are not especially visionary or revolutionary, but at least they are plans. Trump, meanwhile, responded with his usual lies. 200,000 dead of Covid? Who cared?! China had more! (It doesn’t.) The economy’s doing fantastic! (There are 30 million unemployed). West Virginia’s mailmen are selling ballots! (They’re not.) I could go on, but the point is clear. Trump’s strategy was to lie not just as brazenly as possible — but with as much hostility, aggression, and rage, as repeatedly, as abusively as he could.

The focus of Trump’s strategy — if there was one — was to delegitimise democracy. To cast doubt on voting, to paint the election itself as a failed institution, whose results he wouldn’t accept. It was the setup we’ve come to know well: “the election is tainted by fraud, so I won’t accept the results even if I lose!” It’s the textbook stuff of democratic collapse — precisely because it has no basis in reality. It is just a way for an authoritarian to win power over democracy.

Around this point of the debate, a decent moderator would surely have recognised that a mockery was being made of a crucial national institution. Unfortunately for America, the sole moderator of this debate was the exemplification of what people call “a mediocre white guy who’s failed upwards all his life.” Chris Wallace, the Fox News pundit. Not a real journalist — he just plays one on TV, the same way that Trump plays a billionaire. Never having been a proper journalist, having been rewarded handsomely for mediocrity and toeing the line all his life — how many millions is he worth? Why is it black families are no better off financially than during segregation? — it was hardly a surprise that he was woefully unprepared for Trump’s blitzkrieg attack on democracy.

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He begged, he pleaded, he cajoled. He laughed nervously and tried to shout for order in his odd duck quack of a voice. None of it worked. Wallace was badly out of his depth. He will be remembered as a man who helped to produce one of the lowest points in American political and social history — the night an aspiring dictator ran roughshod over democracy, sneering and jeering at a nation, lying with abandon, bellowing those lies in red-faced rage, humiliating his country across a dumbstruck globe. The night was an embarrassment for all sane Americans, and Chris Wallace was the meek, eager handmaiden of a night of national humiliation.

Wallace’s terrible moderation — or lack thereof — led the debate from bad to worse. And now it came to its climax.

Asked to condemn white supremacy, Trump responded by doing something remarkable, even for Trump. First — of course — he blamed “the left” for violence, even though of course statistically, political violence in America is almost all right wing, like, notably, the young man who openly shot protestors not so long ago.

And then he told a neo-Nazi paramilitary group — an especially powerful one, who are already at the leading edge of the wave of violence sweeping the nation — to “stand by.”

Let me put that more simply. An aspiring authoritarian just told a fascist militia to stand by in the weeks before a crucial election.

Wait, what? Americans shouldn’t just dismiss this. They should understand how ominous it is. Those of us with experience in these matters, who’ve lived all this, will tell you: an open call to fascist violence from paramilitaries is rare even in authoritarian states. Such an event is so alarming that it crosses lines that exist in failed societies. Even there, authoritarian leaders don’t often openly tell fascist militias to “stand by” unless they are at the point of civil war. It is profoundly disturbing that Trump used the debate stage to put fascist militias on “stand by.”

When authoritarian ones send messages like this, you should listen. It is not inconsequential. They are telling you exactly who they are and what they want. Trump putting the Proud Boys on “stand by” wasn’t some kind of joke or slip of the tongue or mistake. It was a clear and open message to the most fanatical elements in his base, in American society, to a fascist militia which can get away with what even Trump’s own shock troops can’t. It was a license and an invitation for America’s extremists — all of them, whom are surely celebrating today — to amp up violence, intimidation, brutality, in the crucial lead up to a critical election. It was a President openly, publicly, and loudly inviting and inciting violent attacks on the basic fabric of democracy itself.

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In case you think I exaggerate, before the debate had even ended, the Proud Boys had responded. They’d put the message on their logos. Their leader said: “Trump told the proud boys to stand by…we are ready.” They understand that a President just gave them the license to literally attack democracy, to do their worst, legitimised their violence at the same as he delegitimised democracy. They are raring to go, savouring the prospect.

What tends to happen in situations like this is that if the authoritarian wins, then the militias he has called on to gain power become his Republican Guards, his SS’s, his Gestapos. That pattern has been seen all over the globe, from Latin America to the Muslim World. And now it’s playing out in America, too. Trump is giving fascist militias a wink and a nudge — telling them he will reward them with power if they help him to break democracy apart.

This is as bad as it gets, my friends. Like I said, this level of degradation is rare even in failing societies. Let me now try to sum it up as clearly as I can.

A head of state standing openly before the nation, and attacking and degrading democracy, delegitimizing its basic values, actions, aspirations, from voting to elections, and then making good on all that by literally inviting fascist militias to do the job of attacking and degrading democracy in the real world, with genuine violence and harm.

That is as bad as it gets. Short of civil war or the total breakdown of the social fabric, the degradation and shamelessness, the lies and untruths, the unbridled, unhinged aggression and enmity towards democracy, the celebration of violence and hostility over reason and truth and decency and peace — all that we witnessed last night from an American President is as bad as it gets.

Trump told you as openly as any leader ever has, including third world dictators, that he wants America to be a neo-fascist state, an authoritarian society, a place of violence and brutality, and he will do anything — anything — he can to make all that come true. Chris Wallace, like a nobody, a nothing, a chump, a sulking fool…simply let him.

And in that way, the true message of the debate is this. The only question left, then, is: are you going to let him, too?

*Umair published this essay in Medium on 30 September