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Trump Never Answered the Debate’s Most Important Question

Let there be no “both-sidesing” of the primary cause of American anxiety.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Joe Biden’s best answer during Tuesday’s debate was for a question that shouldn’t have to be posed. “How confident should we be that this will be a fair election, and what are you prepared to do over the next five-plus weeks?” moderator Chris Wallace asked. “Because it will not only be on Election Day, but also counting some mail-in ballots after Election Day. What are you prepared to do to reassure the American people that the next president will be the legitimate winner of this election?”

Biden began with a rote response: He urged people to register to vote and cast a ballot. From there, he also took aim at his opponent’s many falsehoods on mail-in voting, the phantasmal threat of voting fraud, and his attacks onwell, voting in general. He also noted that Democrats would be deploying poll watchers to make sure that people can successfully take part in the democratic process. But then Biden dug deeper. “This is all about trying to dissuade people from voting because he’s trying to scare people into thinking that it’s not going to be legitimate,” he explained.

“He cannot stop you from being able to determine the outcome of this election,” Biden went on to say. “When the votes are counted, and they’re all counted, that will be accepted. If I win, that will be accepted. If I lose, that’ll be accepted. But by the way, if, in fact, he says he’s not sure what he’s going to accept—well, let me tell you something, it doesn’t matter, because if we get the votes, it’s going to be all over. He’s going to go. He can’t stay in power. It won’t happen. It won’t happen, so vote. Just make sure you understand, you have it in your control to determine what this country is going to look like the next four years. Is it going to change, or are you going to get four more years of these lies?”

There is plenty of anxiety surrounding the November election: some based in credible and legitimate concerns about Trump and the Republican Party’s authoritarian tendencies, and some based in unrealistic scenarios of imminent national collapse. But none of it is being caused by Joe Biden.

A healthy, functional president—a healthy, functional human—would probably try to dispute or dispel some of these fears. They would denounce white supremacists and far-right militants without hesitation. They would either express confidence in the electoral system or propose genuine solutions to their concerns about it. If nothing else, they would insist that they are committed to the rule of law and the peaceful transfer of power. One candidate managed to do that on Tuesday night; the other did not.

Why? Because Trump is neither a normal president nor a normal man. He is profoundly unwell. He lacks a moral compass and an ethical core. He is outmatched by and under-equipped for the responsibilities of his office. He is under investigation by local prosecutors in New York at this moment—and may find himself similarly pursued by federal prosecutors next year if he loses in November. He is saddled with eye-popping levels of debt, with more than $421 million in loans reportedly coming due within the next four years. And he is currently on track to lose his bid for reelection after alienating a majority of the country and mismanaging a pandemic that killed 200,000 Americans.

Had Trump wielded all his power and influence to actually fight the pandemic—by encouraging social distancing measures, by modeling proper mask use, by elevating public health officials instead of undercutting them—he would likely be sailing to reelection right now. Many foreign leaders and U.S. governors saw polling bumps during the early months of the crisis as voters rallied around authority figures in an uncertain time. Trump only received a brief, modest one; it quickly eroded once he’d applied his erratic, performative, and self-defeating approach to the pandemic.

With people still dying and the economy still reeling, Trump could only draw upon his own anger and fear. “You have repeatedly criticized the vice president for not specifically calling out antifa and other left-wing extremist groups,” Wallace said. “But are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland?” When Trump asked for a specific group, Biden volunteered the Proud Boys, a right-wing gang known for its violent clashes with leftist protesters, its toxic views on women and masculinity, and its alleged rule against masturbating more than once per month.

“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump replied. “But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem, this is a left-wing.” Proud Boy members and groups drew the natural conclusion from Trump’s remarks: that it was an order to await further instructions, not an outright condemnation.

Trump’s attempts to clarify the remarks on Wednesday did not help matters, either. “I don’t know who the Proud Boys are,” he told reporters outside the White House. “I mean, you’ll have to give me a definition. ’Cause I really don’t know who they are. I can only say they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work. Law enforcement will do the work.”

Trump’s conflation of far-right gangs with police departments is striking on multiple levels. But it mainly underscored that Trump’s approach to the Proud Boys—and to white supremacist groups writ large—is far from adversarial. That stance is particularly toxic when combined with his ongoing efforts to delegitimize the election.

On Tuesday night, as the debate lurched toward the end, Wallace made one last effort to gain some manner of respite from the implications of Trump’s answer. “Will you urge your supporters to stay calm during this extended period, not to engage in any civil unrest?” he asked. “And will you pledge tonight that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified?”

“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen,” Trump replied, issuing a missive to his base instead. “I am urging them to do it. As you know, today there was a big problem. In Philadelphia, they went in to watch. They’re called poll watchers, a very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia. Bad things.” Those remarks amplify fears that he and his supporters will try to stoke chaos on Election Day in places with large numbers of Democratic voters, illicitly trying to tip the balance in his favor.

The president never actually responded to either of Wallace’s inquiries. But the answer will come, soon enough.