The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How do we save a democracy on the brink?

President Trump speaks to reporters outside the White House on Wednesday. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Reaction to the first presidential debate was swift and fierce, and the fallout from President Trump’s performance was a fitting conclusion to a month that will likely cost him reelection.

September began with Trump buffeted by reports that he denigrated dead military heroes while attacking America’s top generals. Then audio recordings were released exposing the president’s lies about a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans. Soon after, a New York Times investigation showed the president to be both an astonishingly bad businessman and a possible tax cheat.

Then came the commander in chief’s historic meltdown in front of 73 million Americans.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham declared Trump’s behavior on the Cleveland debate stage “the lowest moment in the history of the presidency since Andrew Johnson’s racist state papers”; author and Post associate editor Bob Woodward accused Trump of “assassinating the presidency”; historian Michael Beschloss lamented that “democracy was trashed”; and, in the unkindest cut of all, actor Mark Hamill slammed the debate as “the worst thing I’ve ever seen & I was in The Star Wars Holiday Special.”

History will reveal soon enough whether Trump is Washington’s Darth Vader or Jar Jar Binks. But voters learned again Tuesday that the former reality TV star can simultaneously be both predictable and shocking. Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, observed that just because one is familiar with Trump’s corrosive character does not make it any “less shocking when it is on full, savage display.”

Tuesday night, Trump openly displayed all his most savage, racist and autocratic impulses as a horrified world looked on.

Post Opinions columnists watched the chaotic first debate between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden so that you didn't have to. (Video: The Washington Post)

Throughout the frenetic 90-minute performance, America’s 45th president refused to condemn white supremacists and instead encouraged the right-wing group Proud Boys to “stand by” as Election Day approaches. The next day, he held his ground, opting to mumble meaningless generalities when invited again to condemn white supremacy. The GOP’s 2020 nominee also instructed supporters to swarm voting locations, and as with his son’s similar appeal to Trump’s “army,” the effort seemed focused on intimidating voters opposed to him. The president also used the debate to admit that Republicans were rushing Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett through the Senate to gain an extra vote for legal efforts aimed at disrupting the counting of ballots.

In “Twilight of Democracy,” Anne Applebaum wrote of the Law and Justice party’s efforts to undermine Poland’s democracy: “There was very little pretense about any of this.” Nor has there been with Trump’s autocratic ambitions, though they are now on even starker display. As with right-wing movements spreading across Europe, Trump’s brand of politics is more “Bolshevik than Burkean,” Applebaum said. Stephen K. Bannon, his former chief strategist, reportedly once proudly declared: “I am a Leninist. Lenin wanted to destroy the state and that’s my goal.”

That apocalyptic vision is shared by Bannon’s old boss.

Trump’s disinformation campaign, his refusal to accept election results, his repeated claims that the election process will be “rigged” and his transparent efforts to sabotage the U.S. Postal Service are just some of the ways he is providing aid and comfort to America’s enemies. An aide to former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev two years ago succinctly summed up his country’s view of Trump to GQ’s Julia Ioffe: “He’s doing all of our work for us.”

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For former conservatives who have defected to Trumpism, it should seem ironic that the same American movement that was long defined by its hostility to ’60s radicalism has been hijacked by a Republican president obsessed with undermining the country’s core institutions. Their dear leader has succeeded where Marxist radicals never could. Trump is sowing doubt in America’s democratic process; he has attacked American generals as “losers” and “pussies”; the commander in chief has also undermined the U.S. intelligence community more effectively than any Marxist ever could; and the man who privately mocks people of faith has corrupted the evangelical movement through his forging of political alliances with power-hungry preachers. In reaction to this week’s debate, Christian author Beth Moore wrote, “No amount of winning is worth shipwrecking our faith.”

Now Trump is focused on wrecking our ship of state, if that is what is required for him to maintain power. Whether his autocratic efforts succeed depends on whether federal and state officials can manage the chaos that will escalate as Trump’s poll numbers decline. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has proposed the establishment of threat-modeling teams in media outlets that would develop a hierarchy of dangers facing democracy while prioritizing a newsroom’s focus. This construct would prevent the press from being overwhelmed by the Russian-style “fire hose of falsehood” that has become the American president’s propaganda strategy over the past four years.

How journalists, judges and elected officials sort through Trump’s lies and misinformation over the next few months will determine whether Trump begins 2021 as a private citizen pursued by creditors or as the “reelected” leader of a dying democracy.

Read more:

Max Boot: Trump showed no respect for time limits, human decency or the truth

Marc A. Thiessen: Biden cleared the low bar Trump set for him. But Trump still won.

Karen Tumulty: The debate was a nightmare, and a fitting summation of Trump’s presidency

Greg Sargent: A former DHS insider sheds a darker light on Trump’s vile ‘Proud Boys’ comment

Donna F. Edwards: Cancel the remaining presidential debates. We can’t have a repeat of the first one.