Monday 5 October 2020 6:00 am

The first presidential debate portends the coming train wreck for American democracy

Dr John C. Hulsman is senior columnist at City A.M., a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and president of John C. Hulsman Enterprises. He can be reached for corporate speaking and private briefings at www.chartwellspeakers.com.

The great playwright, George Bernard Shaw, perfectly summed up the dynamic underlying the shambolic first US presidential debate: “Never wrestle with pigs. You both get muddy but the pig likes it.” 

Instead, the just-concluded first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden — surely the ugliest in the nation’s history — saw both its protagonists mud wrestle. It produced no winners; only American democracy itself was the loser. 

While being largely devoid of substance, it was the sulfuric tone of the contest that was most off-putting. 

Determined to go on the offensive, the President, according to CBS news analysis, spoke over his challenger a perpetual 73 times, or around once every minute and a half. Biden, in turn, was rattled, urging Trump to “shut up, man,”amidst the chaos, noting, “It’s hard to get a word in with this clown.” 

The nastiness was bitter and personal. In turn, Trump accused Biden’s troubled son, Hunter, of dubiously making money off the family name in both Ukraine and China, while Biden countered, saying the president was a liar and a racist. Suffice it to say, the elegance of the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960 seemed an eternity away. 

However, on the limited substance of the contest, over the 90 minutes, both sides scored some real points. Biden, playing his strongest card, accused the White House of mishandling the Covid-19 crisis, as 200,000 Americans have already tragically died. Biden is surely hoping to remind the country of the importance of administrative competence. 

Secondly, Biden accused the President of encouraging far-right supremacist groups, who alarmingly the president couldn’t quite bring himself to condemn. 

Trump was strongest attacking Biden over the riots that have followed in the wake of civil rights protests in America this year, noting, “The top 10 cities are run by Democrats, and (in) many cases, the radical left. And they’ve got you wrapped around their finger, Joe.” 

Pinned down on law and order questions, Biden could not name a single police union that had endorsed him. Nor, in his affable if somewhat vague way, did Biden entirely dispel fears that his best days are behind him. 

But, as ever, at its essence, the debate was about Trump above all. His supporters will view it through the lens that their hero was energetic, combative and strong, just as his detractors will have seen him as narcissistic, thuggish, and downright rude.

In other words, it is hard to see how this freak show changed much of anything. A Monmouth University poll on 28 September showed that while 75 per cent of voters polled intended to watch the debate, only a minuscule three per cent said it was very likely to affect their vote. The debate was largely sound and fury, signifying nothing; nothing that is, but the horrendous corrosion of the American political discourse. 

But there is one overwhelming, immediate danger that emerged from the contest, a threat to the republic lying in plain sight. Once again, the President refused to categorically accept the result of a verified vote on 3 November, calling into question the practice of voting by mail.

Follow the steps that will, in my view, lead us to a train wreck of political risk, a black swan calling into question the American democratic process that investors have yet to remotely fathom. 

First, more Democrats than Republicans tend to vote by mail. For example, as of late September in five key battleground states, of the postal ballots requested, 52 per cent have been from registered Democrats, 28 per cent from Republicans, and 20 per cent from independent voters. 

As in some cases, mail order ballots cannot begin to be counted until Election Day itself, this has led to the trend in past elections wherein Republican candidates (whose supporters vote at a greater percentage in person on Election Day) have early leads in the counting, only for this to be whittled away as the postal votes are belatedly added up. 

Second, this general trend will be greatly reinforced during this election, as a record number of people are expected to vote by mail this time because the pandemic makes voting in person risky. 

So we will be living in a post-Election Day environment where Trump will have an early lead that is persistently eroding, as the US spends days adding up the mail-in results, delaying the overall outcome. In this uncertain environment, Trump will surely dispute the result, a flurry of court cases will ensue, and the most powerful country in the world will be left in limbo, its political system utterly discredited. 

I fear Shaw is more right than he knew — we are all about to get in the mud with a pig; it is the American political system itself that will get muddy. 

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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