Column

Trump Knows He’s Losing and He Wants America to Lose With Him

The only thing the first debate showed is that the president is more dangerous than ever

Photo: Morry Gash-Pool/Getty Images

The first presidential debate — what a shitshow. Tuesday night wasn’t just a circus or a debasement of politics: It was a warning of just how dangerous things are getting. Trump used the debate stage to try to delegitimize an election he knows he’s likely to lose and to signal to violent white supremacists that he may need their brand of “support” come election day. It was a disgrace, and it was frightening.

Donald Trump knows he’s losing his grip on the presidency. He can see where he is in the polls, he knows that Americans are horrified over his administration’s response to Covid, and that the country is in rapid decline. But Trump’s fear about losing power goes beyond leaving the White House; there’s a massive debt waiting for Trump once he leaves office, and potential criminal charges.

The president is desperate to protect himself. So instead of focusing on any particular issues, reaching out to undecided voters, or participating in a good-faith exchange of ideas, Trump decided to use the debate stage as a bully pulpit.

The president mowed over Democratic nominee Joe Biden and moderator Chris Wallace (who, instead of controlling the debate, nervously chuckled as he let the president run amok) — but that wasn’t really the point, just icing. Trump’s real priority on Tuesday was to sow confusion and fear, and to convince the American people that any election results that don’t favor him are illegitimate.

It’s hard to overstate the danger of such a thing: The president of the United States is preemptively attempting to invalidate election results. It’s what Trump has been doing for weeks — calling into question the legitimacy of mail-in ballots, and demanding that “security” be let into polling stations.

Biden called Trump out during the debate, saying, “This is all about trying to dissuade people from voting, because he’s trying to scare people into thinking that it’s not going to be legitimate.” But it’s not enough to simply call the election results invalid — Trump wants to make sure his most violent and extremist supporters on the ground are ready to protect his power.

When asked at the debate to disavow racist extremist groups, the president responded, “Who would you like me to condemn? The Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by.” That was no aberration: Just a few days ago, Donald Trump Jr. released a video calling for Trump supporters to engage in voter intimidation, asking people to “join an army for Trump’s election security.”

Stand back and stand by is not a condemnation — it’s marching orders. And the Proud Boys, a racist and misogynist hate group known for violence at protests, took his words as exactly that — one group even quickly changed their logo to include the president’s words.

I’m certain conservatives will see Trump’s debate performance as a win. They see the president’s interrupting and thinly veiled threats as simple domination, not a serious danger to democracy. (Or perhaps they’re willing to put up with the erosion of American democracy in exchange for power.)

Tonight wasn’t a debate — it was a desperate grasp to remain in power by a man who knows he’s on his way out. “This is not going to end well,” Trump said of the election. Finally, something we can all agree on.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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