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Master of disaster / October 01, 2020
On the plus side for Donald Trump, at least no one is asking about his taxes at the present moment.

There was a presidential debate in Cleveland on Tuesday night and the President of the United States took the stage determined to stand out as the majordomo in the orangutan poo-flinging competition. I have no idea if Trump’s performance is what passes for strong leadership in MAGA world, but to the normal eye, there’s no way to describe his conduct during the debate as anything other than a national embarrassment and disgrace. The hectoring, the bullying, the rudeness and cruelty, the incessant lying and buffoonery, it was all there in its full cheap glory, like a gold-leaf doctorate degree from Trump University.

I watched the first 25 or 30 minutes or so before bailing. That show of endurance on my part — seriously, who sat through this thing without being paid money to opine about it later? — was motivated by one concern: to see how Joe Biden would hold up against Trump’s poop hurricane. The answer, happily, is fine. Biden didn’t need to be great, he just had to be solid, and during the first third of the debate I watched the Democratic nominee more than hold his own. (The big-foot media pundits didn’t seem to love it, but “Keep yappin’, man” was my favorite line by Biden in the early going, although it looks like “Will you shut up, man?” is destined to be the catchphrase that goes on t-shirts.) Reading the reviews afterward, the general consensus seems to be that Biden got better as the debate wore on, while Trump sank further into his own cesspool by refusing to condemn white supremacists when given the chance. (On “Fox & Friends” the next morning, host Brian Kilmeade said Trump “ruined the biggest layup in the history of debates” by whiffing on the chance to reject right-wing violence. When you’re a Republican and you lose “Fox & Friends,” well ... that’s a problem. And give credit to Biden, too, for teeing up the moment — debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News was utterly hapless all night — by challenging Trump to denounce the Proud Boys, a white nationalist goon squad that is implicated in violence in Portland, New York City and other urban centers. Trump’s reply? “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” That comment will go on t-shirts, too, just none that any decent person should want to be seen wearing.

What American learned from the first (last?) presidential debate of 2020 is that Donald Trump is exactly what we knew him to be — an ignorant, lying, crass, thoroughly unfit-to-be-President occupying the Oval Office — and the only question is whether seeing this spectacle live on TV will move the voting public, or some increasing share of it, to walk away from Trump’s increasingly tired act. Short of wrapping the Commander-in-Chief in a front-fitting long-sleeved white coat, the only way to get rid of Trump is to vote him out. It might be a different story if Republicans in Congress would do what they know in their hearts should be done — impeach and convict — but because it’s Trump’s party now, expecting Republicans to do their duty is like expecting the Cowardly Lion to grow up to be the Lion King. It’s on the voters to staunch the bleeding and begin the healing, and in Biden, we’ll have a president for whom the idea of binding up America’s wounds actually means something.

The national Republican Party has taken a sharp turn toward authoritarianism and know-nothingism that must be rejected, and frankly punished, for the good of the country and the Republican Party. America needs vigorous opposition with our two-party system, but if the GOP can’t find the spine to demand that Trump denounce racist provocateurs such as the Proud Boys, the party becomes much worse than a waste of space — it’s a menace on a far greater scale than the sad man in the White House. There’s no indication, of course, that Trump’s potential heirs — Mike Pence, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, or God-help-us Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson — have any intention of reclaiming a sense of decency for the GOP, so it’s not exactly clear how the party finds its soul without first spending a long, long time in the wilderness. This presents a challenge to Democrats, too: The party must simultaneously act in (reasonable) concert to tackle enormous problems in the country — in some ways the pandemic is just the warm-up act — while holding a popular mandate over time.

There’s reason to think the Democratic Party might be able to pull it off. Politics is ever-changing, an encouraging thought in these trying times, but one thing that’s pretty much set in stone is the toxic reputation of the GOP among younger, more progressive voters. (Millennial and Gen Z voters are expected to make up 37 percent of the 2020 electorate, according to Pew Research, a share that is set to surpass the Baby Boomers in November and will only grow over time.) Parties are made of political animals; threats to their survival require that they adapt or die. But Republicans who advocate changing the tone and substance of the GOP to accommodate this emerging majority face an awful choice: by jettisoning Trumpism, they run the severe risk of chasing away a significant share of the party faithful. You already see Republican candidates struggling to break free of this trap of Trumpism — in Maine, self-styled Republican moderate Susan Collins is caught between trying to prove her independent bona fides while keeping the MAGA vote on board. (Spoiler alert: It ain’t happening.) In South Carolina, Lindsey Graham is also struggling in the polls — loathed by moderate South Carolinians, including some unknown number of Republican defectors, and unable to nail down true-blue Trump voters who haven’t quite forgiven Graham for playing Robin to John McCain’s Batman. No matter how much Graham sucks up to Trump, he’ll never be able to do enough to win over his most rabid supporters, which is a problem that most of the pretenders to Trump’s throne will face once he’s gone.

Pray that Nov. 3 ushers in that day. To the question of whether Tuesday’s debate makes any difference in the race, the only real answer is “we’ll see.” Yet there’s no reason to believe Trump helped his prospects against Biden. Right now the Trump campaign is losing, perhaps badly, a reality that creeps into the comments that some Republican officials make now and again on the record. Meantime, Trump’s debate performance shows he’s basically given up on the idea of trying to win over converts. His behavior on the debate stage might have thrilled the base but it repulsed the nation. Not that Trump let this problem go unaddressed. When asked if he would accept the outcome of the election if he loses, Trump said, “If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with it. They cheat” — thus running out the authoritarian trick of lying to discredit the integrity of our election system (a tactic, sadly, that has been widely adopted by the Republican Party). “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” said this president who can’t bring himself to condemn neo-Nazis and QAnon crazies. In case the point isn’t already clear, “watching carefully” is not what these people do.

Let’s wrap up on a local note: Given Trump’s open invitation to his supporters to “watch very carefully” as Biden voters head to the polls in November, is there any reason why the Halifax County Board of Supervisors should recognize an official county militia at the next board meeting? It would probably be quite a thrill for our local gun-toters to receive the Board’s official sanction before showing up at precincts a month from now, armed to the hilt with semi-automatic weapons so as to provide “neutral security” while county residents, presumably some of them Democrats, vote. Do supervisors plan to authorize the militia to provide “neutral security” at voting places, or will the Board specifically bar this particular “security” activity? And if they do, is there really such a thing as neutral militia security? Or is brazen intimidation okay now? In all likelihood, board members have given this question zero thought, which presumably would leave the matter at the discretion of our Minutemen wannabees. Zero thought might work out fine as supervisors plow through their regular agenda. On this one issue, perhaps they should try to anticipate potential problems before holding their vote.

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