There was one unmistakable takeaway from Tuesday night’s first presidential debate: Donald Trump is a bad person, and if you watched that debate and still intend to vote for him, you are too.
These are harsh words but what the president subjected the country to on Tuesday went far beyond politics. It spoke to Trump’s fundamental absence of character, decency, and morality — but also of those who refuse to recognize and condemn his abhorrent behavior.
It’s bad enough that for almost the entire 90 minutes of the debate, Trump interrupted, spoke over, and tried to bully Democratic opponent Joe Biden, disrespecting both the process of a presidential debate but also the millions of Americans who tuned in to learn more about the two candidates. It’s beyond obscene that with more than 205,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, Trump took a victory lap bragging about his self-proclaimed phenomenal response to the pandemic. It’s maddening that he continues to tell lie after lie about mail-in voting and still won’t commit to a peaceful transition of power. It’s incomprehensible that when asked to condemn white supremacists — perhaps the easiest slam dunk question any politician can ever receive — the president refused to do so. In fact, he appeared to encourage them to be on alert by calling on them to “stand back and stand by.”
All of this would have been enough to have made Tuesday night one of the lowest moments in American political history. But as is so often the case with this president, there is always a lower and more sordid depth that can be reached.
In a direct rebuke to the president for having reportedly called members of the military killed in America’s wars “losers” and “suckers,” Biden spoke about his son Beau, who earned the Bronze Star in Iraq and who later died from brain cancer. Did Trump, who is also a father, use the opportunity to offer sympathy to his opponent? Did he offer words of praise for Beau Biden’s service to his country? Of course not. In a clear and terrifying indication of how Trump’s brain works, the reference to Biden’s deceased son reminded him to attack Biden’s other son, Hunter, with a spate of false attacks about his business dealings, his military service, and, worst of all, his struggles with drugs.
In what was one of the only redeeming moments of an otherwise awful evening, Biden flashed his anger as he defended Hunter and spoke movingly of his struggles with drugs. “He’s fixed it, he’s worked on it," Biden said. “I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”
All Americans should be outraged by Trump’s lack of empathy, compassion, and integrity, but let’s be honest — many were not. Indeed, Tuesday’s night train wreck crystallized what has long been the defining question of the Trump era — are you on the side of decency or not? There’s no safe harbor here and we should stop pretending that there is.
It does not matter how important you think it is to stock the federal courts with conservative judges, how pleased you are about your taxes being cut, or how well your 401(K) is doing.
Choosing to compartmentalize four years of outrageous, corrupt, racist, misogynistic, and narcissistic behavior or ignoring the president’s inability to act like a normal, rational person is a choice that millions of Americans try to rationalize, but it is not one that frees his supporters from accountability. These are not attributes to be simply waved away. How one perceives Trump’s behavior speaks volumes not about your political views but rather one’s character. That’s been true for four years, and it was particularly true Tuesday night. For far too long, political commentators have pretended that those who continue to support Trump are immune from critique or condemnation. It’s about time we retired that canard. Trump’s ability to drag the nation down into the gutter with him would be not be possible without the slavish backing of his supporters and enablers.
Late in the debate Biden declared that because of Trump’s presidency, America as a nation has become weaker, sicker, poorer, more divided, and more violent. It’s easy enough to blame Donald Trump for that. But those who continue to support this man, bear responsibility as well.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.