President Donald Trump’s demeanor in the first presidential debate, which some have characterized as “out-of-control,” was no surprise. As the 90 minutes wore on, he became increasingly red-faced, reflecting an escalating fever pitch that crested twice: first, when he refused the invitation of moderator Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceChris Wallace: Trump arrived too late to be tested in Ohio before debate, relied on ‘honor system’ Presidential debate proves the power of the climate movement Fox News anchors, executives to be tested after potential COVID-19 exposure at debate MORE to condemn violent white supremacists; second, when he met Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump campaign manager tests positive for COVID-19 Twitter to remove posts hoping for Trump’s death Obama sends well wishes to Trump, hopes he is ‘on path to speedy recovery’ MORE’s mention of his late son Beau with a chilling attack on Hunter Biden’s history of addiction. Without the adoring crowds, enabling Fox News pundits and gaslighting by White House staff and congressional Republicans, Trump’s true character was on full display.
It was a gift to American democracy.
Cornered on the stage with Biden and facing pointed questions from Wallace, Trump was unabashed about his nefarious strategy for staying — or, in his words, securing “a continuation” in office. It’s not about winning over voters with an appealing policy platform on issues like the coronavirus, the economy, immigration, health care or climate change. Trump even mocked Biden for his mask-wearing, roughly 48 hours before testing positive for COVID-19. Indeed, the Republican National Committee nominated him this round without any substantive policy platform whatsoever — merely declaring “[t]hat the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the president’s America-first agenda” (whatever that may mean for Trump personally).
Trump’s platform is crystal clear: Support me and I will replace the Constitution itself.
The 20th Amendment states that “[t]he terms of the president and vice president shall end at noon on the 20th day of January.” Trump predicted during the debate that vote counting would take “months”— a period that could exceed the time frame that’s available if America is to see a new president sworn in on Jan. 20, 2021, as the Constitution requires. Such delay is only even possible thanks to the Republican party’s nationwide efforts to kill COVID-19-related election changes in the courts.
The 12th Amendment states that “[t]he electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for president and vice president.” With America torn apart by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell hints Senate will vote on Trump’s Supreme Court pick before election GOP Sen. Thom Tillis tests positive for coronavirus The Hill’s Campaign Report: Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis upends 2020 race | Biden pushes ahead on the campaign trail | Senate moving forward with Supreme Court nominee hearings MORE’s (R-Ky.) pledge to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court before the election, Trump offered up to viewers that the Supreme Court — not the voters — would decide the election. (As a lawyer, Barrett worked on the ultimately successful effort to stop the ballot recount in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, which was effectively resolved in favor of George W. Bush by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore.) Trump also spewed more tired falsehoods about “fraud” and mail-in voting, claiming that ballots were dumped in an elusive river that White House Press Secretary Kaleigh McEnany could not name when asked later at a press conference.
Article II of the Constitution requires that the president take an oath that he “will faithfully execute the office of the president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Trump took this oath. In the debate, the president also urged his followers to “go to the polls and watch very carefully,” as “bad things happen in Philadelphia.” Donald Trump, Jr. posted a bizarre online video stating, “We need every able-bodied man, woman to join Army for Trump’s election security operation . . . Not just on Election Day, but also during early voting and at the counting boards. President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump campaign manager tests positive for COVID-19 Trump given Remdesivir as treatment for COVID-19 infection ICE launching billboard campaign highlighting ‘at-large immigration violators’ MORE is going to win. Don’t let them steal it.” Even before the debate, the RNC had already announced a plan to recruit 50,000 poll watchers, and in Fairfax County, Va., Trump supporters heckled early voters with loud motorcycles, signs and shouts of “Four more years.”
The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution states that a person can only be elected to the presidency two times for a total of eight years. At a rally in Minnesota, Trump again prodded his repeated threats to ignore the Constitution’s two-term limit for presidents. “What are they going to do in eight, 12, 16 more years when we hang it up?” he told the crowd.
That Trump even suggests staying in office by disfiguring and delegitimizing the electoral process in the United States is not news. But seeing him string the pieces of his strategy all together in a vicious face-off with the mild-mannered Biden struck a chord with some people.
Post-debate interviews with 2016 Trump voters suggest that the spectacle may, for some, have cracked our normal human tendency to downplay the worst and give those who could hurt us the benefit of the doubt. One Texas voter who had planned to back Trump told The Bulwark, “I don’t know if I am going to stick with him. That was awful last night. I’m moving more towards the fence, I really am. It was despicable behavior, the way he attacked Joe’s sons, one of whom is dead, it was terrible.” Another from Pennsylvania quipped, “Are we serious right now? You’re on live TV, you’ve got every single social injustice thing happening right now . . . Just come out and condemn it! Is it for all of the rednecks that you’re not telling the KKK to knock it off? I had a WTF moment while that was happening.”
A collective WTF moment is precisely what America needs right now. If Trump’s questionable display brought us one step closer to seeing the reality of who he is and what he means for the country, then Trump unwittingly offered us all a gift — a clarion call to step up now and save democracy itself. The poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou said it best, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them . . . .”
Kimberly Wehle is a professor at University of Baltimore School of Law and author of the books “How to Read the Constitution — and Why,” and “What You Need to Know About Voting — and Why.” Follow her on Twitter @kimwehle.