President Donald Trump’s failure to loudly and forcefully condemn white supremacists in his debate with Joe Biden was an unmitigated disaster that may have cost him a chance at reelection.
What Americans witnessed in the chaotic dumpster fire of a debate was this: an angry, stubborn and inarticulate Trump, putting his metaphorical foot in his own mouth, and chomping down to leave the stump twitching on the floor. Metaphorically.
Some Republicans blamed the moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News. But it wasn’t Wallace who bit Trump’s foot off. Yes, Wallace did appear to run interference for Biden, which noticeably irritated Trump. Wallace may have helped to push the foot back in there, near the presidential molars, but it was Trump who bit down hard, with his own jaws, for all to see.
During the debate, Wallace asked Trump to condemn white supremacist and right-wing groups who showed up amid protests in Portland and Kenosha. Wallace didn’t mention a left-wing antifa supporter accused of shooting a Trump supporter to death in Portland.
This seemed to send Trump over the rhetorical edge.
Trump said he was willing to condemn the groups: “Sure I’m willing to do that, but I would say, I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing. If you look — I’m willing to do anything. I want peace.”
Biden quickly demanded that Trump denounce the far-right group Proud Boys, which has been linked to white supremacy organizations, and Trump said:
“Proud Boys. Stand back, and stand by, but I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what: Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.”
Proud Boys. Stand back, and stand by?
Stand by for what? What would they “stand by” for?
And it was done.
To be clear, what the president did wasn’t merely some dumb thing blurted out by an inarticulate man under severe pressure. It was unconscionable.
The Proud Boys, validated by a president, loved it. The Democrats loved it too. On CNN, the network of the establishment Democratic Party, David Axelrod and other operatives mused that Biden should not participate in the last two debates. It would be the smart political move. Cynical, yes. But it would protect Biden from himself. He “won” this one. Why risk others?
While many media hot takes are still steaming, what might be needed here is a large bag of ice.
By refusing to condemn the Proud Boys group, Trump could hurt Republicans campaigning for other offices. Trump voters in key suburban swing districts will feel pressure to remain silent in the last weeks of the campaign, lest they be painted by the same Proud Boys brush. Black voters and suburban women, already a tough sell for Trump, may have been irrevocably turned off.
But we already can see critically important issues now being obscured by Trump’s validation of an extremist group. And this, at least for me, is an American tragedy that eclipses the personal ambitions and flawed personalities of Trump and Biden and goes to the foundation of the republic.
One important issue is the Democratic Party’s threat to pack the Supreme Court in response to the president’s nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett. Neither Biden, during the debate, nor his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, have felt media pressure to answer yes or no on court packing
Trump and his Proud Boys remark, giving cover to a fringe group that promotes violence, takes the spotlight away from the issue.
The other key issue is unfolding in hearings in Washington that should be the most important political story in decades but isn’t: the apparent political weaponization of the Obama and Biden administration’s FBI and intelligence services against a political rival.
That the rival is Trump, strongly supported by about half the country and reviled by the other half, doesn’t make what happened any less serious.
But this story isn’t tracking with voters. Americans are exhausted with politics and seem ready to turn the page. And the establishment Beltway media — particularly The New York Times and The Washington Post, which received Pulitzer Prizes for their coverage of the much-discredited Russian collusion story — loathe Trump.
Having led “the resistance,” are they eager to “speak truth to power” (their own) and publicly examine their roles in carrying the water for it all? It doesn’t seem so. The Department of Justice is investigating the extent to which federal law enforcement was used as political muscle, and U.S. Attorney John Durham is preparing his report on the matter. But it’s all being brushed off as Republican Party talking points.
Getting away with leveraging the FBI for political purposes would set a dangerous precedent. A future president might want to use those same law enforcement and intelligence tools against a rival. And why wouldn’t some future president do just that, seeing how America is mostly ignoring it now?
The tragedy is that if that happens, the republic is done.
And the republic is more important than Trump’s reelection or Biden’s victory. If elected, Biden will be expected to have it all painted over, perhaps with a thick, solid beige. And it will have been downplayed at a key moment in the campaign because Trump was stupid and angry and would not condemn the Proud Boys, as he should have.
Republicans were left to suggest, lamely, that he misspoke.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the only Black Republican in the Senate, was asked about it.
“I think he should correct it,” Scott was quoted as saying in The Wall Street Journal. “If he doesn’t correct it, I guess he didn’t misspeak.”
Little things help turn elections. But this is no little thing.
And Trump knows it.
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