A Preview of a Despot

Human rights, civil rights, the rule of law: Trump doesn’t believe in them, and he would like your vote.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during Sunday’s town hall in St. Louis.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

In a normal presidential election, debates are a chance to compare two plausible candidates. This isn’t a normal election. If you chatter about who won or lost on points, you’re missing the story. The story in these debates is that the public is getting a chance to see, before it happens, what it would be like to have Donald Trump as president. It would be one of the most dangerous crises in the history of the United States.

The first debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton, held on Sept. 26, exposed Trump’s views on financial and civic responsibility. He advocated tax avoidance, international theft, stiffing vendors and creditors, exploiting the misfortunes of others, and deploying the military as a global protection racket. Viewers got a chance to see that Trump was no ordinary crook. He completely lacks a conscience.

The second debate, held on Sunday, exposed Trump’s views on human rights, civil rights, and the rule of law. Essentially, he doesn’t believe in them.

The debate opened with a question about role-modeling. CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked Trump about the recently disclosed 2005 video in which Trump bragged about using his star power to grope women. “You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals,” said Cooper. “That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?”

Trump dismissed his taped comments as “locker-room talk.” Then, without missing a beat, he continued:

We have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads. … And they look at our country and they see what’s going on. Yes, I’m very embarrassed by it [the video]. I hate it. But it’s locker-room talk, and it’s one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS.  … We’re going to have borders in our country, which we don’t have now. People are pouring into our country, and they’re coming in from the Middle East and other places.

Why did Trump answer a question about sexual assault by pledging to block refugees and knock the hell out of ISIS? Because to him, it’s all about power. He’s proud of the macho image in the tape, even if he regrets that his language was graphic enough to hurt him politically. The guy who talks big in the locker room is the guy we can count on to break some heads.

Half an hour later, a Muslim woman asked the candidates, “How will you help people like me deal with the consequences of being labeled as a threat to the country?” Trump answered her by repeating his slander that “in San Bernardino, many people saw the bombs all over the apartment” of the terrorists before they struck last December. This claim has been debunked so many times that there’s no longer an innocent explanation for Trump’s continued use of it. “Muslims have to report the problems when they see them,” said Trump. He didn’t mention, but also didn’t renounce, his threat to punish all Muslims for attacks like the one in San Bernardino. (“If a community isn’t going to report when they know something’s going to happen, those people have to suffer the consequences,” Trump told a crowd in Ohio on Aug. 1.)

Nor did Trump renounce his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Twice, ABC’s Martha Raddatz asked Trump whether “the Muslim ban still stands” or “is no longer your position.” Trump refused to say yes or no. Instead, he said his plan had “morphed into extreme vetting from certain areas of the world.” Raddatz also asked Trump whether it was “a mistake to have a religious test.” Trump didn’t answer.

Trump called for more military collaboration with Russia (whose invasion of Ukraine he has previously defended) and opposed aid to rebels who are fighting Russian forces in Syria. He asserted, contrary to the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies, that Clinton “doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking” of American email accounts and Web sites to influence our election. In fact, Trump ventured, “Maybe there is no hacking. But they always blame Russia.”

Raddatz noted that Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, “said provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength and that if Russia continues to be involved in air strikes along with the Syrian government forces of Assad, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike the military targets of the Assad regime.” Pence’s statement was conservative orthodoxy, but Trump rejected it. “I disagree,” said Trump. Presented with a choice between Russian and anti-Russian foreign policy, Trump chose Russia. Vladimir Putin is Trump’s spiritual running mate.

Trump doesn’t just admire Putin. He emulates him. Like Putin, Trump threatens journalists. Like Putin, he preaches “law and order” while encouraging mob violence. Like Putin, Trump says he can order the military to deliberately kill civilians. And like Putin, he refuses to tell voters what kind of wars he would wage as president. In Sunday’s debate, Trump rebuffed questions about what he would do in Syria, arguing that to disclose his plans would tip off the enemy. While praising Putin, Trump ridiculed the U.S. government for its transparency. “How stupid is our country?” he asked.

One of Putin’s goals in hacking U.S. government websites is to discredit our electoral process. He would like to destabilize American democracy. Trump has aided this project by warning that the election is “rigged.” In the debate, Trump piled on, claiming that Clinton had cheated Bernie Sanders out of the Democratic nomination. But that was nothing. A few minutes later, Trump went full Putin. He threatened not just to defeat Clinton, but to imprison her.

“If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation,” Trump told Clinton. Twice more, he repeated the threat: “We’re going to have a special prosecutor.” Clinton, marveling at this outburst, expressed relief “that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.” To which Trump retorted: “Because you’d be in jail.”

These are norms we don’t openly trash in the United States in the 21st century. We don’t settle political disputes by jailing opponents. We don’t dismiss election results and promote political violence. We don’t serve and emulate dictators. We don’t suspend the civil liberties of minorities. We don’t worship men who abuse women and brag about it. Occasionally, we’ve crossed some of these lines. But no major-party presidential nominee has so baldly renounced them.

For 240 years, Americans worked, fought, and died to get us this far. We could blow it all in a day. That’s what I saw in this debate. I hope enough of our countrymen did, too.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.