The first presidential debate has been almost universally declared to be a disaster. The president, the contender, and the moderator have all faced criticism that varies according to one’s political bent.
But after what has happened since Trump’s surprise election victory in 2016, the gong show of a debate should come as no surprise. We had a former vice president calling a sitting President of the United States a “clown,” a “racist,” a “fool,” and then telling him to “shut up.” This is exactly the way the president has been treated by his opponents since 2016—as an illegitimate president.
And President Donald Trump is only too aware of that ongoing slight. So he lashes out at his opponents, a hopelessly biased media, and the sheer injustice of fairly winning an election but then being treated as an interloper.
A Damaging Precedent
There have been times in the history of America when lawfully elected presidents have been treated with disdain by the opposition and harshly by the media. One only has to think back to the days of former president George W. Bush, after the Iraq War had gone sour. Bush was vilified, and his mildest pronouncements were treated as proof of his calumny. But even then, it would have been inconceivable for Al Gore to call him names like “clown” and tell him to “shut up” in a debate. No moderator would have allowed, and no opponent would have said, such a thing.
One thinks back to more civil times when a “gotcha” moment was something as mild as Ronald Reagan’s rebuke to Walter Mondale’s criticism of Reagan’s age—the genial Reagan joking that he would not hold Mondale’s youth and lack of experience against him. Reagan was smiling when he said that, and Mondale acknowledged that he had been “zinged” with a genuine smile.
Contrast that with the snarling bull of a slighted President Trump and the openly contemptuous Joe Biden. Everything about the attitude of both men suggested not only dislike for one another, but genuine hatred and contempt.
Regardless of one’s political leanings, it should be obvious that such a situation is extremely unhealthy for a nation. When one side refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of a lawfully elected president, no good can come of it. The fact that both men should be on Team America has been completely lost.
An election will be held shortly. One side will win and one side will lose. However, the truly damaging precedent has now been set. If the precedent holds, after the election the losing half of the country will simply treat the winning side as illegitimate. The “winners” will be called names like “deplorables” or “racists” and subject to the most vile insults. The term of the winning, but “illegitimate,” president will be spent fighting off impeachment trials, investigations of all sorts, and personal attacks. Or worse.
And who benefits from this?
Certainly not America. In fact, since 2016, China, Iran, and Russia have licked their lips while this unofficial civil war has been conducted within the United States. China, in particular, has achieved alarming “victories” in Hong Kong and the South China Sea that would have been inconceivable if America had been less internally riven. Russia has been able to do its mischief almost undetected by a distracted America.
Edward Gibbon got his inspiration for his great “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” while gazing at the ruins of the once mighty Rome. Internal division distracted the Romans while enemies patiently gathered at the gates—ready to pounce. And that is where America is today. Internal division is tearing the country apart, while enemies smile.
There now seems little chance that supporters of the current president—who have spent the last four years watching their president being shabbily treated as an illegitimate president—will let bygones be bygones. They’ve watched their opponents carrying out their dirty work, and they know just how to respond.
It’s tempting to hope in vain that whoever loses the November election will gracefully accept the loss, and unite against the many adversaries and very real problems facing the country.
But that possibility seems remote.
Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.