Letters From an American

The Debate Heard Round the World

The Debate Heard Round the World

September 30, 2020

So what was happening while we were distracted by Trump’s debate performance?

First of all, his tax returns, publicized by the New York Times since Sunday, have taken a back seat to his support for the white supremacist gang the Proud Boys and his attacks on a peaceful election.

Second, coronavirus news is not getting the airtime it should. More than a million people around the world have died of Covid-19, including more than 205,000 Americans. Florida is seeing a surge in new cases since Governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order allowing restaurants and bars to reopen. The Midwest is also in a surge, with record numbers of new cases in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Kansas. Wisconsin hospitals are nearing capacity and South Dakota has the highest rate of spread in the country. Experts worry about a dramatic rise in cases as cold weather settles in.

Third, Brad Parscale, Trump’s former campaign manager, left the Trump campaign today after his involuntary hospitalization for psychiatric evaluation over the weekend after threats to self-harm. He cited his need “to focus on my family and get help dealing with the overwhelming stress.” Parscale knows the secrets of the Trump campaign since the heady days of 2016, and the family is reportedly worried he will begin to cooperate with law enforcement about possible campaign finance violations. Campaign staff is scrubbing his presence from the campaign’s website.

These three big stories are on the back burner because last night Trump told white supremacist thugs to “Stand Back and Stand By” before saying that “somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left,” a statement observers note sounds much like a precursor to calling them to action against those he perceives to be enemies.

He also called for “poll watchers” to prevent fraudulent ballots and warned that Democrats are going to steal the election from him. He said he expects the election results will take “months” as the campaign challenges mail-in ballots, and that he hopes the case will end up in the Supreme Court.

Today, it feels like Trump’s embrace of white supremacist gangs and his open declaration that he is planning an assault on our democratic process was a turning point for the campaign, and for the nation.

The president reportedly is happy with the way the evening went, believing his supporters love to see him go on the attack. Today he has complained that he “was debating two people last night,” but that he had won and it was “fun.”

Trump’s team is dutifully echoing his talking points. Campaign spokeswoman Thea McDonald told the Washington Post that “Poll watchers are critical to ensuring the fairness of any election, and President Trump’s volunteer poll watchers will be trained to ensure all rules are applied equally, all valid ballots are counted, and all Democrat rule breaking is called out…. And if fouls are called, the Trump campaign will go to court to enforce the laws, as rightfully written by state legislatures, to protect every voter’s right to vote. President Trump and his team will be ready to make sure polls are run correctly, securely, and transparently as we work to deliver the free and fair election Americans deserve.”

This high-minded language is a weird echo of the language white supremacists used in the American South after the Civil War, as they drove Black voters and white Republicans from the polls and turned the region into a one-party state for generations.

Neo-Nazis and right-wing thugs are thrilled they have a fellow traveler in the White House. “I got shivers,” Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer, wrote Wednesday. “I still have shivers. He is telling the people to stand by. As in: Get ready for war.”

But not everyone was thrilled with Trump’s performance. Focus groups of women were turned off by his bullying, and his male supporters thought he interrupted too much. An adviser called it “a disaster.” Politico’s chief political correspondent Tim Alberta thought Trump looked exhausted and “behaved like cornered prey.” The Commission on Presidential Debates is reworking its rules to try to prevent another spectacle like last night. Foreign observers were “aghast,” according to an AP report; Kenyan commentator Patrick Gathara wrote: “This debate would be sheer comedy if it wasn’t such a pitiful and tragic advertisement for U.S. dysfunction.”

Even within the White House people were dismayed. “It’s nuts…” “total lunacy,” an official and a staffer told Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman. A prominent Republican added: “Trump didn’t win over any voters, and he pissed off a lot of people.”

Trump’s people are trying to walk back Trump’s support for the Proud Boys. They are also trying to convince him to temper his future performances. Dana Bash from CNN reported today that “A source familiar with the president’s debate prep tells CNN that they wanted him to be aggressive, but not act like Jason from Friday the 13th.” Republican lawmakers were largely silent today about Trump’s performance, although Susan Collins (R-ME) agreed that Trump should have condemned white supremacist gangs after she first tried to blame both sides for the debacle.

At his rally tonight in Minnesota, Trump said Biden is cancelling the next two debates, although Biden has said he’ll be there. Trump is also talking about getting rid of a term limit on the presidency and serving another 8, 12, or 16 years.

Americans who care about our electoral process are now trying to prepare for crisis at the polls. “This is a blatant attempt at voter intimidation,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat. “It’s very important to be clear about that. It’s illegal. It is a crime to engage in voter intimidation or election interference.” Several state attorneys general say they will arrest anyone who tries to intimidate voters.

Perhaps most important today was the news that the FBI’s Dallas Field Office yesterday released an intelligence report warning that a “violent extremist threat” is imminent, and that the period between now and the inauguration next January is a “potential flashpoint.” That threat comes not from the “left,” as Trump charges, but from the right-wing gangs that Trump is encouraging, including the Boogaloos, a staunchly anti-government group that is working to bring about a race war to speed up the collapse of the government. The report, which was obtained exclusively by The Nation, is titled “Boogaloo Adherents Likely Increasing Anti-Government Violent Rhetoric and Activities, Increasing Domestic Violent Extremist Threat in the FBI Dallas Area of Responsibility.” The report warns that there is “increased ‘patrolling’ or attendance at events” that serve the Boogaloo’s cause, including “otherwise peaceful and lawful protests.”

Today a federal judge in Montana rejected the attempts of the Trump campaign to stop the state from expanding mail-in voting. He permitted the new system to go into place, and called the idea of widespread voter fraud “fiction.”

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.