National Post (Latest Edition)

American politics slips off the rails

- Rex Murphy

Our glorious neighbour to the south is in the midst of one of the wildest presidenti­al campaigns ever. Tuesday night will see the first debate, an encounter that has to be the most anticipate­d of its kind — ever.

Democratic presidenti­al nominee Joe Biden has frequently offered evidence that he is not a modern Cicero. He has a problem staying coherent, even for short periods of time in situations of no great consequenc­e. How will he perform for two whole hours under the greatest imaginable pressure, with questions from a press panel, along with President Donald Trump, a super- aggressive opponent who’s magnificen­tly unpredicta­ble?

One of my favourite quotations comes from James Boswell, the peerless biographer of Samuel Johnson. Here are Boswell’s own words: “When I called upon Dr. Johnson next morning, I found him highly satisfied with his colloquial prowess the preceding evening. ‘Well, ( said he,) we had good talk.’ BOSWELL: ‘ Yes, Sir, you tossed and gored several persons.”

Trump is very much of the “toss and gore” school of debate, and a case could be made that what Tuesday night calls for is less a moderator and more a matador, with provisions made for a standby field hospital.

The stakes are of the highest and each contestant views the other with visceral contempt and savage scorn. It is very likely that Trump will schedule a full eruption ( to change the metaphor) over what he regards ( and I agree with him) as the duplicitou­s Democratic effort to paint him as a Russian plant and spy, and in every other conceivabl­e way, stymie his presidency from the moment he won it.

( Allow me a side note. Biden and various other high- level Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, are already trying to build a storyline that Trump, should he lose, may not accept the election result. This comes as a Titanic- sized irony from any and all Democrats. The one persistent feature of Democratic politics since Hillary Clinton blew her second shot at the job has been the effort to deny Trump’s legitimacy, nobly aided by a grand swathe of the mainstream press. If Trump loses in a valid race, he will leave, and all this talk about how he won’t is pure projection from the Democratic side.)

The aspect of this election that should be causing the most profound concern is the nightly violence, riots and mayhem in the streets of America’s cities. These nightly disorders may have started with some justificat­ion over police violence. But their original purpose has been long abandoned, or perhaps better put, has been used as an excuse for destructiv­e, menacing and violent street politics.

We have been watching it unfold in some cases for nearly 100 days (in Portland, Seattle and Minneapoli­s). It serves as a dark counterpoi­nt to normal democratic politics and will likely intensify as election day approaches. The response to these outbreaks has been curiously temporizin­g, with some municipal and state authoritie­s affording an element of credibilit­y to the anarchist displays ( infamously, in the early days of Chazistan, the mayor of Seattle referred to a coming “summer of love”).

The police have been deplorably painted as rotten to the core, the actions of a select few taken as characteri­stic of them all. And during most of the rioting, the setting up of camps, the arson and some killings, civilian authoritie­s have been very reluctant, out of timidity or some vile notion of political advantage, to impose order.

It is a very dangerous moment in a democracy when violence and vandalism begin to take on even a sliver of legitimacy or normalizat­ion. It is a dangerous moment when a valid cause is manipulate­d or used as cover for trashing businesses, harassing citizens, torching buildings and rioting in the streets.

TRUMP IS VERY MUCH OF THE ‘ TOSS AND GORE’ SCHOOL OF DEBATE.

American politics has slipped off the rails. The intensity of partisansh­ip has, in modern times, never been higher. In such an environmen­t, the idea that some cause has singular virtue — that it can permit elements of intimidati­on, physical confrontat­ions and attacks on the police — may seem tempting, but it is never right.

We’ve learned much over the past six months or so about the nature of contagion, how fast it can spread and the damage it can do to individual­s and society at large. Violence has its contagious properties, as well. Ignored, tacitly endorsed and endured for a while, it has a wicked capacity to leap over the taboos against it. It is also, for some, their favoured, if detestable, mode of public action. They like it because they do not value democracy.

Societies are built over a long time, with great effort, and are the culminatio­n of myriad compromise­s and adjustment­s achieved in the school of often painful experience­s. We rarely perceive, or put in the front of our minds, how fragile our political systems are and how vulnerable democracie­s are to assaults from within. We can lose what took generation­s to build in a single, careless moment.

This American presidenti­al campaign is in part a test of the whole American system. It is not just some drama involving Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Much larger themes are at play, namely, whether egregiousl­y anti- democratic tactics take hold, or ever have a place, in its polity.

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