The disgraceful spectacle of the first presidential "debate" on Tuesday was so repulsive, bizarre and frightening that it took a best-selling writer of fiction to clearly explain its teleology.
"One aftermath of Donald Trump's frightening and aberrant debate performance," wrote popular novelist Richard North Patterson, "was that his nakedly unshackled sociopathy virtually obliterated conventional political analysis."
Patterson's superb summation of the Republican president's determined demolition of all written and unwritten rules of political conduct, not mention norms of common decency, during the first mano-a-mano confrontation with Democratic nominee Joe Biden underscored the challenge facing political journalists (or anyone not among Trump's 60 million hardcore supporters) seeking to understand, let alone analyze, the shameful 90-minute affair.
"Trump's goal was not to have a debate - it was to have a debacle," said veteran political writer Phil Trounstine, who joined Newsmakers for a post-debate conversation breaking down the affair.
The most generous explanation for Trump's widely-covered deviant behavior cast it as a deliberate strategy; Trump aimed to unnerve, agitate and unbalance Biden with his nonstop verbal assault, in support of the Republican attack narrative that he is too old and feeble to be president -- but maybe went a bit too far, according to his spinners and media apologists.
The more chilling explanation, however, is that Trump trashed the debate with intention and forethought -- part of his continuing strategy to delegitimize the election, which by every conventional measure, he now seems likely to lose.
Thus, he not only refused to pledge he would accept the voters' verdict and adhere to the traditional peaceful transfer of power, when moderator Chris Wallace asked him repeatedly to do so, but he also openly expressed the hope ballot-counting would stop and the Supreme Court would decide the result in his favor, while all but ordering his supporters to use intimidation tactics at polling places on Election Day.
This, shortly after infamously refusing to denounce the white supremacist, neo-Nazi organization known as the Proud Boys.
"Trump's comments were a call to arms to his white supremacist supporters," as Trounstine put it.
By traditional standards Biden "won" the debate: holding a solid lead in the polls he said or did nothing that would cost him support, while the trailing Trump did nothing to attract new voters or build his coalition -- particularly among the key cohort of white suburban women.
That said, it seems increasingly clear that Trump's end game goes far beyond the election itself -- into the dangerous 10 weeks between Nov. 3 and January 20, Inauguration Day, when he will still be president regardless of the outcome, and may be expected to use all the resources of the White House and the federal government in a desperate bid to hold on to power.
He spoke volumes when he warned, darkly and repeatedly: "This is not going to end well."
Watch Newsmakers' conversation about the debate with Phil Trounstine below and...the podcast version is here.
Lead image: David Horsey, Los Angeles Times.