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Kelly McParland: After Trump's 90-minute tantrum, what's next?

Donald Trump’s performance in the U.S. presidential debate Tuesday night was enough to make a person physically ill.

It was frightening. No one who watched could feel this was a normal, well-balanced human being, in control of his faculties and with the best interests of the country in mind. This was a man filled with anger, with bitterness, with hate, a man willing to burn down the country to avoid the humiliation of defeat and save himself from the status he so deeply fears, that of a loser, a sucker, a dope. Donald Trump doesn’t mind the prospect of an America in ashes, as long as he can still be boss of the remnants.

The man who threw a live, 90-minute tantrum on TV, filled with venom, self-pity and resentment, should be seeking therapy for whatever it is behind his overwhelming sense of aggrievement, not running for a second term as president. Maybe it stems from his childhood, his relationship with his father, his desperate need for attention, to be seen as a winner rather than the often-bankrupt huckster who somehow stumbled into the presidency and now seems overwhelmed by panic at the possibility he’ll lose it. Whatever. The notion that the figure who took the stage against Democratic candidate Joe Biden has final control over nuclear weapons and the world’s biggest and most powerful army is the stuff that makes reasonable people lie awake at night, fearful of what the future might bring.

It was enough to make a person physically ill

It was not a debate in any recognizable sense of the word. Trump wouldn’t allow it. His strategy going in was evidently a determination to disrupt proceedings to the maximum possible extent, to allow nothing in the way of criticism of his record, to block any civilized discussion of the concerns that are increasingly causing millions of Americans to wonder what’s becoming of their country. Two hundred thousand dead from a virus that is far from under control; racial violence in the streets; a desperate financial situation that has millions struggling to get by from week to week; a Congress so divided and dysfunctional it can’t even agree on a rescue package to mitigate some of the pain, and which spent the day racing to cobble together a short-term deal to prevent the government itself from shutting down ; closed borders and allies who want to keep them that way rather than face the health dangers of granting entry to Americans.

Trump didn’t want to talk about any of that, and understandably so. Rather than try, his strategy was to go on the attack from the outset, talk over — and if need shout over — both Democratic challenger Joe Biden and moderator Chris Wallace, to turn the debate into a farce and hope that somehow he would emerge from the rubble better off than Biden. One observer compared it to a live version of his Twitter feed, a constant barrage of insults and insinuations, obvious falsehoods and fantastical claims based on nothing more than his own imagination.

Wallace lost control from the earliest stages, and you had to sympathize with him. How do you corral a man who has all the power of the office of president, who simply ignores entreaties to show some dignity and restraint, to play by the rules or allow others to finish a sentence? Any parent who has tried to reason with an hysterical five-year-old staging a meltdown in public knows how it feels; there’s no mannered way to deal with it, you simply have to bundle them into the car and get them out of there. But you can’t do that to a president, no matter how much you might want to.

The great challenge to Americans who still retain hope for their country is what to do next. Until the debate it was possible, just, to hope that all the threats and rhetoric Trump has unleashed in recent weeks were part of an act, and that he didn’t really intend to barricade himself in the White House should he lose in November and hope to be saved by a wave of legal challenges and a Supreme Court newly fixed with a 6-3 conservative majority. But not after Tuesday. Trump made it crystal clear that his ongoing effort to undermine the credibility of the vote is deadly serious. Challenged to denounce white supremacists he responded instead with an apparent show of support: “Proud Boys — stand back and stand by,” he said, adding: “I’ll tell you what. Somebody has to do something about antifa and the left. This is not a right-wing problem. This is left wing.”

He urged supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” for “rigged” votes. “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen,” he said. “We might not know for months because these ballots are going to be all over.”

Biden made an effort to counter Trump’s verbal assault, calling him a “clown,” a “liar,” a “racist” and “the worst president America has ever had.”

“Will you shut up, man?” he barked at one point. So chaotic was the evening that Biden’s camp felt compelled to confirm he still intends to participate in the two remaining confrontations.

Numerous experts have estimated only five per cent of likely voters have yet to make up their minds, but they could be critical if the results prove to be close. It’s almost unimaginable a majority of Americans could witness the display Trump put on Tuesday and still feel he’s the man for the job. But until Tuesday it was unimaginable a man could rise to the presidency and act like that.

What kind of country elects a man like that? And what if he clearly loses and refuses to leave? Responsible forces better be ready to deal with that possibility, because it’s not unlikely, and there’s no evidence the country is equipped to respond.

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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