(Jim Young/Reuters)
Opinion writer

“The night belongs to Donald Trump,” the often reasonable Michael Smerconish said on CNN shortly after Sunday night’s presidential debate — a debate in which the Republican nominee disqualified himself for any political office, let alone the most powerful in the world. On what kind of curve is Smerconish — and, apparently, some other people — grading?

There is not an American of any political party who should fail to find this exchange chilling:

“If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation,” Trump said to Hillary Clinton after he attacked her on the State Department email scandal — a scandal on which FBI Director James B. Comey, who was a Republican most of his life, insisted no reasonable prosecutor would bring charges.

“It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country,” Ms. Clinton shot back.

“Because you’d be in jail,” Trump replied.

For months, Trump has let his his surrogates suggest that a Trump administration would prosecute Clinton, and his audiences chant “lock her up!” Now he is directly promising to turn the Justice Department into a political retribution machine. The United States is an advanced democracy that rests on the rule of law. Yet Trump presumes its voters are willing to sell their civic heritage for his cheap promises to stop all the corruption and end all the bad things.

That such a man could be the presidential nominee of a major political party is a sign of a sick party. That such a major-party presidential nominee could poll anywhere near as well as Trump does is a sign of a troubled democracy. That any commentator could watch Trump promise to jail his political rival and give him points on the evening is a partial explanation for both.

UPDATE, OCT. 11, 2016, 1:55 P.M.:

Smerconish tweeted at me today:

Fair enough. Here is Smerconish’s full answer, per a CNN transcript:

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think that the night belongs to Donald Trump. I think that he was borderline in free fall as the evening began, and by the end of the night, by the end of the debate, we’re not talking about the Trump tape. I think he was able to pivot away from that.

He was strong, barely controlled at some points, and it was a greatest hits reel for the 14 million who voted for him. I mean no handshake at the outset, Bill’s infidelities, the e-mail erasure, radical Islam, dishonesty on her part, the media.

I think you’re going to hear a lot from the Trump forces about how they interpreted the role of the moderators in this. So I think that those who voted for him got everything they wanted in their vote. Did he grow the tent?

I can’t see that there was any outreach. I looked carefully for those moments where I thought that he could have expanded the base that he already has. But I think it’s his night, not a knockout, but his night on points.