As we all settled in to watch the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, none of us expected to be witnesses to a squabble between preschoolers. Moderator and Fox News anchor Chris Wallace’s remarks cast the debate as a war zone, stating he’s “never been through anything like this.” In the aftermath of the debate, former Vice President Joe Biden described it as a “national embarrassment.” The only person who might have felt some semblance of satisfaction was the problem himself: President Donald Trump, who succeeded in turning a normally productive and enlightening debate into a night of interruptions, lies and madness.
The debate included six 15-minute segments on the coronavirus, the economy, the Supreme Court, race and violence in the U.S., Biden and Trump’s previous records, and the integrity of the election. Wallace struggled to maintain control as Trump blatantly disobeyed his requests, continuously interrupted Biden during his time and did not allow anyone but himself to speak. At one point when Wallace attempted to retain control, Trump even declared that he wasn’t just debating Biden, but Wallace as well. Frankly, Trump’s actions in this debate more closely resembled that of a petulant child than a sitting president. Our natural instinct may be to recoil from this debate season’s caustic political theater. The debates may be defined by their vitriol and bedlam, but so will this fall’s election, and nothing will prepare us more effectively for that than seeing Trump lay waste to democratic norms on stage.
Trump’s primary goal throughout the debate was to undermine the integrity of the election and anyone who sought to establish any guise of fairness. He proclaimed that the mail-in ballots already being used were “a fraud and a shame” and declared “a rigged election,” casting doubt on voting should he not win come November. Beyond that, he repeatedly misconstrued Biden, equating him to a puppet for the “radical left” and a “socialist,” without giving Biden his due time throughout the debate.
The most enlightening part of this lawless night may very well be the truths it brought to light about Trump himself. Biden said it best: “everybody knows he’s a liar.” We know Trump does not care about the American people. We know that he’s racist — his refusal to condemn white supremacy and his abysmal record are more than demoralizing. We know he doesn’t care about order or justice, but he doesn’t get to decide who stays in office, despite his theatrical debate performance and attempts to sow discord. From his colossal lies and efforts to sabotage the debate, it is clear that Trump’s only goal is reelection, no matter what the American people say. It’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen.
As horrific as Tuesday’s spectacle was, you likely had the option to turn your television off and make it stop. On Nov. 3, you will have no such option. Trump has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power should he lose, and he has spent months laying the groundwork to contest the results. The U.S. has grown increasingly polarized in recent years, but 2020 has seen that partisanship reach a fever pitch. Thanks to COVID-19, Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, our reckoning with racial injustice, climate change and the myriad other crises wracking the nation, America has become a powder keg.
All signs indicate that Trump plans to use that peril to unleash electoral chaos. In anticipation of contested vote totals following Election Day, Republican Party officials have already begun to coordinate with state legislatures on selecting their own slates of electors to send to the Electoral College. All states have chosen to grant their residents that power for over a century, but most remain able to rescind it whenever they please. Trump’s tireless efforts to suppress political participation and discredit mail-in voting could ensure that some do, and his team is ready to seize that opportunity if it arises. Numerous other possibilities exist as well; the House of Representatives could be forced to choose the next president, states could send multiple groups of electors to the Electoral College or a legal dispute could punt the decision to the Supreme Court. At the end of the day, anything could happen in November. Odds are that it will satisfy neither side, and the results could be catastrophic.
More so than during any election since at least the end of the 19th century, this year’s contest could turn violent on a massive scale. Far-right militant groups have seen ballooning registration this year. Gun sales have surged. The threat of right-wing terror will likely grow in the weeks preceding the election, and even left-leaning groups are preparing for the worst. If the results are at all questionable, political violence could become ubiquitous. We need to either brace ourselves for the worst or find a way to prevent it.
Luckily, Trump has given the American people a way to prevent his reelection. On Tuesday night, he embodied unthinking brutality, and he will likely do the same in his next two debates with Biden. He chose to out himself as cruel and barbarous to the American people, and we cannot waste this opportunity. Democrats have already seen a flood of donations in the aftermath of the debate, but we cannot stop here. That these debates are excruciating to watch is true, but therein lies their true value. Watch Trump expose the danger he poses to our democracy and push everyone you know to do the same. Most importantly, start talking about his unfitness for office and don’t stop. A resounding Biden victory will by no means stop Trump from casting doubt on the legitimacy of the process, but it could forestall the worst of the mayhem that a near-draw could precipitate.
The last three years have revealed Trump to be uniquely unfit for office, but the unmitigated catastrophe that was the first presidential debate made the extent to which that is true abundantly clear. Once and for all, the president proved himself a demagogue and a charlatan who will burn the world’s oldest democracy to the ground for four more years of power. As individuals with stakes in that 244-year tradition, we must resist. Prepare yourself for November’s chaos by actively watching the debates and help prevent the worst of it by bearing witness to and acting on what you see. Do you find what you saw on Tuesday distasteful? Disgraceful? Horrifying? If you do, tune into the next one on Oct. 15. Let everything you see and hear galvanize you; tell the world how it made you feel. Check whether you’re registered to vote and tell everyone you know to do the same. Donate to or volunteer for Biden’s campaign. Talk to your neighbor. Make a plan. Vote.
This November, centuries of democracy will turn on just one day. Don’t screw it up.
Brammhi Balarajan (23C) is from Las Vegas. Ben Thomas (23C) is from Dayton, Ohio.