Editorial: Trump’s bullying was an insult to the American people

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Anyone who watched Donald Trump’s debates with Hillary Clinton in 2016 was on notice that he would likely be aggressive and obnoxious in his first debate with Joe Biden. But Trump’s bullying performance in Cleveland on Tuesday evening — which overwhelmed moderator Chris Wallace — was an insult to the American people.

We can argue about which candidate won the debate, such as it was. Our view is that the former vice president, while put on the defensive by Trump’s insult-comic shtick, managed to focus effectively on facts about Trump’s atrocious administration that matter: his epic mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic, his failure to produce a health insurance plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, his stoking of racial divisions.

But we worry that these and other points were lost in the chaotic back-and-forth of the exchange. Americans could be excused for turning off the television in disgust, not only at Trump but at the failure of the Commission on Presidential Debates to prevent the president from hijacking the forum. The commission has given Biden ample reason to refuse to participate in anymore such encounters, though his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, suggested afterward that he would not decline.

It was inevitable that Trump would play dirty, deflect questions about his mishandling of the pandemic, and try to drag in the alleged misdeeds of Hunter Biden and “crooked Hillary.” Biden and Wallace no doubt expected that. But, as if sensing that he will lose this election, the president chose not to debate but to heckle. It was a disgusting and demeaning performance that robbed the viewers — and the voters — of what should have been an exchange of facts and positions on a nation that faces challenges like none since the Depression and World War II.

Amid the incessant interruptions, Biden established himself as a voice of reason and compassion, striking a contrast to Trump’s unhinged rantings. Even when he was less than surefooted in answering Wallace’s questions — for example about whether he would support expanding the size of the Supreme Court — Biden projected seriousness, civility and competence. But at times, Biden also engaged in name-calling, describing Trump as a “fool” and a “clown,” and even telling him to “shut up.” We understand his exasperation, but do not approve of such language in a debate.

Trump, meanwhile, was an exaggerated version of himself: crude, slanderous and demagogic. He ranted about familiar obsessions: “law and order,” the “fake media” and — the biggest and most dangerous lie of the night — his claim that mail-in balloting is associated with rampant fraud.

Asked by Wallace whether he would denounce “white supremacists and groups to say they need to stand down and not add to the violence,” Trump essentially shrugged and said, “Sure, I’m willing to do that,” immediately adding, “Almost everything I see is from the left wing. Not from the right wing.” He urged the Proud Boys, a violent group of xenophobes, to “stand back and stand by.”

As if that casual flirtation with violence — utterly antithetical to the norms of our constitutional democracy, the world’s oldest — weren’t enough, Trump also suggested that his followers monitor polling places to prevent fraud. (Independent experts have repeatedly found that any such fraud is minimal at best.) In doing so, Trump raised the specter of efforts to intimidate or harass voters seeking to exercise their constitutional rights, an echo of the ugly voter suppression that has historically disenfranchised Black Americans.

No doubt Trump’s performance thrilled members of his base. But, given that he is trailing in polls and is losing mightily among female voters, he will need more than the support of “Make America great again” die-hards to win reelection. Voters who are not part of that cult could only have been disgusted by the president’s performance.

When this editorial page endorsed Biden earlier this month, we observed that it was inconceivable that anything that would be said on the debate stage could close the cavernous fitness gap between the two candidates. That remains true, but any voter who watched Tuesday’s sad excuse for a debate could have come away with only one conclusion: Donald Trump has been a disaster as president, and Joe Biden is the steady and sober leader we need to undo the damage Trump has inflicted on our economy, our society and our democracy.


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