President Donald Trump didn’t hurt Joe Biden in Tuesday’s debate, but he badly damaged our country.
Trump harmed the United States in three ways, reminding us that the biggest threat to America comes not from desperate migrants, not from “socialists” seeking universal health care and not from “anarchists” in the streets — but from the White House itself.
The first way in which Trump damaged the country was in his salute to violent extremists.
“Are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists?” Chris Wallace, the Fox News anchor who moderated the debate, asked Trump. Trump initially dodged the question but finally asked petulantly, “Who do you want me to condemn?”
Biden suggested the Proud Boys, a militant group that is fervently pro-Trump.
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump declared.
The Proud Boys, founded in 2016, are part of what the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “a fascistic right-wing political bloc.” The Anti-Defamation League compares it to a gang. The Proud Boys' founder once said, “I cannot recommend violence enough,” and its members have brandished guns, committed criminal assaults and engaged in rioting. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram have banned Proud Boys.
While the Proud Boys deny that they are white nationalists and the founder is suing the Southern Poverty Law Center for its descriptions of them, the group’s members identify as “Western chauvinist” and assert that “white men are not the problem.” They have long-standing links to racism, and a Proud Boy (since expelled) apparently was the organizer of the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, rally that drew neo-Nazis. An anti-Semitic podcast once estimated that if Proud Boys were pressed, “90% of them would tell you something along the lines of ‘Hitler was right. Gas the Jews.’”
The Proud Boys responded enthusiastically to Trump’s comments at Tuesday’s debate, celebrating them as “historic” and boasting that they were already bringing in new members.
“That’s my president,” declared the Proud Boys' leader, Enrique Tarrio, adding, “Standing by, sir.” Some added “stand by” to the group’s logo.
After addressing the Proud Boys on Tuesday night, Trump added: “Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem ... this is a left-wing problem.”
Look, violence is a right-wing problem and a left-wing problem. A careful study by the Center for Strategic & International Studies concluded that “right-wing extremists perpetrated two-thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019.”
Biden quite properly has deplored leftist violence, but to me the biggest take away from the debate was that the president of the United States refused to condemn white supremacists and instead called on modern brownshirts to “stand by.” Under intense pressure on Wednesday, Trump claimed that he did not know who the Proud Boys were and urged them to “stand down”; disavowals of extremism never seem quite so sincere when they’re made only after public outrage.
The second way in which Trump damaged our country was by seeding further doubts about the election. He served as a mouthpiece for Russian-style propaganda about the illegitimacy of American democracy and laid the groundwork for postelection upheaval and violence. Here’s what Trump said:
“As far as the ballots are concerned, it’s a disaster ... This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen ... It’s a rigged election.”
I’ve seen postelection violence explode abroad like a volcanic eruption. In 2008 in Kenya, covering such violence, I met a man whose wife and children had been burned to death and a 16-year-old boy who had been tortured with a machete. A dazed woman arrived at the bus station with the head of her husband, decapitated by a mob; after a similar ordeal, a man showed up with his severed penis in a sock. All this had been unimaginable until an election dispute polarized society and unleashed enraged mobs on rival groups.
Americans should stand together to disavow Trump’s words and ensure we don’t ever go a step down that road.
Ominously, Trump said: “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it.”
Trump refused to elaborate on what he meant. Was he calling on supporters to act as legal poll watchers? To disrupt voting? To engage in street violence? He was artfully ambiguous — but he managed both to undermine election integrity and increase the risk of mayhem.
That leads to the third way in which Trump wounded our nation: He made our country a laughingstock around the world. Trump claimed in 2016 that he would make Americans respected around the globe — but instead, we are pitied.
A Nigerian friend emailed me after the debate: “I regret to say that this is the most disgraceful public display by a leader of a developed country I have seen ... And this from the United States of Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan ...? Good God. Sorry, Nick.”
If Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and al-Qaida worked together, I don’t know that they could damage the United States as deeply — unraveling our social fabric, destroying our norms, devastating our global image — as Trump has. And we still have two more presidential debates.