The presidential debates are intended to be a public service, but Tuesday night was no service to anyone. Ten minutes in and we knew that we were in for total chaos for the next 80 minutes. For those of us who stuck it out, what we heard from President Trump set off democracy alarms.

To his credit, Joe Biden did his best (despite interruptions) to speak directly to the American people about health care, coronavirus response, economic recovery and climate change. Without hesitation, Biden said he would wait for all votes to be counted, and he would accept the result. Biden tried mightily to follow the rules and respond to the questions from moderator Chris Wallace, who was as bullied as we were at home. A lot of shade is being directed at Wallace for not controlling the debate, but Trump arrived onstage intending to sow chaos. What does anyone do with a candidate who rejects the rules he agreed to and who interrupts while being admonished about interrupting? Wallace was left pleading, “Mr. President, Mr. President, please . . . ”

This should not be allowed to happen again.

The Biden campaign — which reported record fundraising after the debate — appears to be determined to forge ahead with the remaining two debates. Obviously, it does not want to risk giving Trump another “Biden in the bunker” talking point, though he could mitigate that risk by doing a series of one-on-one interviews with the major news outlets. Also, the striking contrast in the candidates’ demeanor and competence might play to Biden’s benefit in the next debate’s town-hall format. But for members of the viewing audience (if any are left), what is the point of allowing Trump another national debate platform to spew hate and lies? Why provide another opportunity to encourage his supporters to intimidate voters at the polls and create distrust in our elections? Do we really need to let him into our homes to issue marching orders to the white-nationalist Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by”?

The Commission on Presidential Debates’ plan to add “structure” to the debate rules to encourage “more orderly discussion” is not enough. Trump has already broken the rules. Sadly, and predictably, he will break them again.

None of this should give any reason for canceling the vice-presidential debate scheduled for Oct. 7. Vice President Pence is unlikely to engage in the bullying tactics of his boss, and former prosecutor Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) will respect her jury. And in the case of Harris, the American people deserve a chance to see and hear her and evaluate her fitness for the job.

Meanwhile, let’s remain clear about what happened Tuesday night. The president of the United States laid bare his election strategy: undermine the democratic elections process, frighten voters at or from the polls and encourage chaos after Election Day.

Trump began his response on election integrity by airing grievances about the 2016 election — still running against Hillary Clinton and playing victim of a self-described “coup.” For weeks leading up to debate night, Trump has cast doubts about the elections process, even claiming that mail-in ballots lead to “massive electoral fraud” — a claim that has been debunked repeatedly. He continued those unfounded aspersions Tuesday night: “This is going to be fraudulent like you’ve never seen.”

In an even more outrageous jolt to democracy, Trump indicated recently that he might not accept the peaceful transfer of power that has distinguished our government for 223 years. Then, Tuesday night: “Don’t tell me about a free transition.” When asked whether he would wait until the election results are certified before declaring victory, Trump made it clear he plans to claim victory on Nov. 3 and challenge the ballots that come in afterward, even as allowed by state law, declaring “it’s a rigged election” before the majority of votes are even cast or counted.

Imagine the slow climb of a roller coaster, sitting at the top, waiting to take that first plunge, then settling at the end, and finally — heart pounding — making it to a full stop. The ride feels like an eternity, and that is what we face for this 33-day roller coaster to the selection of the next president. We may stay up into the wee hours of Nov. 4 and still awaken that morning (and possibly every morning for weeks) only to see partial, unofficial results. It will be frustrating, but necessary, to just wait it out until the end.

Tuesday night we heard from a flailing president who warned us: “This is not going to end well.” Yes, it’s time to worry, but more presidential debates are only going to make the destabilizing chaos worse. We do not need a repeat of giving Trump a prime-time opportunity to enable him to stir a pot that is simmering to a boil. His pot.

Twitter: @DonnaFEdwards

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