If you want to understand who won this week’s presidential debate, keep in mind a moment from our political past that I call “Stahl’s Epiphany.” During the 1984 presidential campaign, CBS reporter Lesley Stahl put together a tough, unsparing critique of Ronald Reagan, focusing on the disjuncture between Reagan’s image and his policies. There were clips of Reagan celebrating Paralympic athletes and inaugurating a new retirement home, while Stahl revealed that his administration had actually tried to cut funding for disabled people and subsidized housing.

It aired as an almost six-minute segment on the evening news, and Stahl was sure that her White House contacts would be livid. Instead, she got a call from one of Reagan’s aides, Richard Darman, saying, “What a great story! We loved it.” When Stahl expressed puzzlement, Darman explained, “Nobody heard what you said. … You guys in Televisionland haven’t figured it out, have you? When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. Lesley, I mean it, nobody heard you.”

At first, as I was watching the Tuesday debate, I thought President Trump was winning. He was in command, making forceful jabs, controlling the agenda and putting Democratic nominee Joe Biden on the defensive. Biden was rarely able to make his points clearly without interruption. But then I thought of “Stahl’s Epiphany” and re-watched parts of the debate with the sound turned off. It was utterly revealing. Shorn of the words, the images revealed a stark contrast. On the one hand, you saw an elderly gentleman, somewhat faded, occasionally stumbling but showing a big smile and a warm heart. On the other side, you saw a fourth-grade bully, a mean-spirited, snarling man, emotionally out of control. He scowled and smirked his way through the entire 90-minute debate.

I had always thought that “Stahl’s Epiphany” was a sign of television’s weakness. But this debate made me recognize its strength. Cutting through all the noise, it gave the American people a window into the characters of the two men. It highlighted Biden’s greatest strengths and Trump’s gigantic weakness. Forget policies for a moment. Trump is a man of bad character, who has abused people, institutions and norms, always to help himself. And that’s exactly what the images from the debate conveyed.

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. (The Washington Post)

The new revelations from his tax returns only confirm what we have always known about him. As Drew Harwell reported in 2016, the one time Trump ran a publicly traded company, he fleeced the shareholders for his own benefit. He loaded almost $2 billion of personal debts on the company and paid himself tens of millions of dollars, while bankrupting the company and wiping out the shareholders. It might all be legal, but very few CEOs of public companies behave like this. In a complex, civilized society, we cannot treat every conceivable unethical or unsavory action as illegal. Above and beyond laws, there have to be norms.

Democracy cannot function without some adherence to norms. You cannot hold presidential debates if one of the two sides simply refuses to abide by the rules, interrupting constantly, heckling his opponent and contesting everything he says. Trump also does something novel and far more damaging. He lies in a way that no previous candidate has ever done, utterly unconstrained by facts. Republicans have recognized that repealing Obamacare with nothing to replace it is politically unpopular, yet they cannot agree on an alternative. For Trump this poses no problem. He simply asserts that he has an alternative.

Trump has broken so many norms that it is difficult to tabulate them. Far from accepting the opposing party as legitimate, he called for his opponent in the 2016 race to be jailed. He has refused to separate himself from his business interests and, while president, has allowed foreign governments to shower him and his family with gifts in the form of trademarks and hotel revenue. White House officials have openly promoted the business interests of Trump and his family. He has used his power to reward and threaten companies — and, most worrying, to intimidate the free press. At the direction of the White House, several federal agencies have been working to strike at Twitter after the platform’s decision to flag some of his most egregiously false tweets. The use of the awesome powers of the state against political opponents is one of the most troubling signs of authoritarianism.

By every indication, Trump is well behind in this election. We are watching him under pressure. And if things continue to look bleak for him, he will get more desperate, more unethical and more vicious. Let’s hope American democracy can withstand the assault.

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