Tuesday night’s presidential debate perfectly illustrates how President Trump abuses our democratic institutions — and how feckless the media can be in the face of those violations.
Since he first entered the presidential race, Trump has violated countless norms of public life, including making tens of thousands of false claims. Such an approach to governing should inspire the media to modify the way it treats the president, including during the debates in which he takes part.
Yet Fox News host Chris Wallace attempted to moderate the debate as if Trump were like any other candidate. Both candidates had agreed to a format in which each would respond to a question from Wallace, uninterrupted, for two minutes, before responding. Instead, Trump repeatedly interrupted, badgered and heckled former vice president Joe Biden, making a mockery of these rules.
With no ability to cut Trump’s microphone, Wallace was left to ineffectually plead for silence, saying at one point: “I think that the country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions. I’m appealing to you, sir, to do that.” When Trump protested that Biden had also interrupted at times, Wallace replied, “Well, frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting than he has.”
It was a microcosm of the media's struggles with asymmetry between parties and candidates: Both parties agreed to a format, Trump sabotaged it and the media’s representative onstage could only muster a mild reprimand.
Wallace was not just ineffective, however. The moderator’s effort to treat Trump like any other candidate took an even darker turn in the final segment. For months, the president has engaged in a systematic effort to delegitimize the results of the coming election, making numerous unsupported claims about fraud — including falsely suggesting voting by mail is rife with misconduct — and refusing to commit to the peaceful transfer of power. Experts, including me, view such actions by an incumbent as a democratic emergency.