Opinion writer

“America doesn’t want to witness a food fight.”

That was the moment when Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) first established her command of the second night of the Democratic debate, breaking through a squabble between Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) with a blast of composed-Mom energy. Even as it happened, though, I felt a twinge. Haven’t the past four years proved that Americans — or at least, enough Americans located in the right combination of states — want the food fight? Or want “such a nasty woman” and “s---hole countries”? Having permission to be cruel and to be crude is, for some people, apparently exhilarating.

But the lacerating exchanges about race and criminal justice that defined the second half of Thursday’s debate provided another reason Americans might seek a sort of twisted refuge in the Trumpian food fight. The opposite of the Trump era isn’t some sort of milquetoast third way or a return to some mythical era of civility. It’s a kind of deeply necessary dialogue about our differences and the harm we’ve done to each other that most Americans — even most of the 20 people who have graced the stage in Miami over the past two nights — would find daunting.

That became painfully clear when Harris asked former vice president Joe Biden if he would still oppose the method of providing an integrated education for a little girl who “was bused to school every day. And that little girl is me.”

The number of candidates competing for the Democratic nomination can seem unwieldy. But one advantage of having this many people in the race, and having them be so different from one another, is that it makes these kinds of exchanges possible.

The discussion of Biden’s opposition to federally ordered busing would have inevitably been different if the only people available to challenge him on it were white men for whom the impact of that policy is theoretical rather than visceral. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s attempt to claim that he’s the foremost champion of reproductive rights is a harder sell with three pro-choice women in the conversation, as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) pointed out, than it would be if he shared that stage only with other men.

But just because these sorts of exchanges will come to pass in a Democratic field as wide-ranging as this doesn’t mean that Democrats know how to conduct them in a way that feels good to everyone.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) might have had to offer a more thorough explanation of her since-disavowed anti-LGBTQ record if she had been sharing a stage with South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who credits his marriage to his husband to “the grace of a single vote on the U.S. Supreme Court.” Harris might have challenged New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first-night assertion that “something that sets me apart from all of my colleagues running in this race . . . is for the last 21 years I have been raising a black son in America” more swiftly than Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) was able to, given how the moderators were directing traffic.

Certainly Biden didn’t seem entirely prepared to defend himself from what should have been an obvious line of criticism of his record, given recent news cycles, and fell back on a lame defense of federalism, even granting that sometimes local governments fail their citizens.

When asked about the shrinking number of African American police officers on the South Bend police force, there was a brief moment when Buttigieg seemed like he might be able to model a way forward. “Because I couldn’t get it done,” he acknowledged, a note of self-criticism that seemed almost radical after years of Trumpian bluster. But all too soon, he was back to talking about a day when black and white drivers would feel the same thing when a police officer walked up to their car windows to ask for their licenses and registrations.

That’s the thing about running for president. To do it, you have to be ambitious in a way that prevents you from telling hard, honest truths, including about yourself. I can’t even imagine a world in which you could run for president and win by saying that some dreams, such as the one of ending racism in America, are too audacious to be achieved in two four-year terms, if they can even be achieved at all. There’s no model for standing on a debate stage and saying you’re sorry if you’ve done harm, and at the same time, that you are genuinely struggling with the call to disavow political relationships, even friendships, that were a meaningful part of your career.

The Trump presidency wouldn’t be so dangerous if the forces he awakened were some kind of collective delusion. Instead, the most frightening thing about him is just how many Americans were ready to buy what Trump was selling. Pulling him up root and branch is a first step, but it won’t remediate the rotten soil in which he grew. The opening round of Democratic debates has demonstrated just how hard that will be, and how vital a task it is.

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