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As the first Democratic debates of the 2020 campaign ended Thursday night, in a Miami theatre, President Donald Trump walked into the official photograph of the G-20 summit of world leaders, in Osaka, Japan. Strolling alongside him was the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who, hours earlier, had declared Western-style liberalism dead and “no longer tenable” in an interview released by the Financial Times. They were smiling and chatting. Soon Trump took his place in the front row, where he stood in between Prince Mohammed bin Salman, of Saudi Arabia, who was beaming, and a more sober-looking President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of Turkey. On Friday and Saturday, the President was scheduled to have private sessions with all three of them, and also with the tough-guy nationalist leaders of Brazil, China, and India.
For previous American Presidents, this would have been an opportunity to act on the world stage as its leader, to project superpower might and stand up for human rights and international ideals, all while exposing the domestic rivals back home as petty partisans. Not for Trump. The President who delights in tweaking allies while admiring adversaries, who sucks up to dictators as he demeans partners, seemed to want to insure that his summit in Japan would emphasize not statesmanship so much as in-your-facemanship.
Trump went out of his way to display his particular brand of undiplomatic diplomacy as he left for Osaka and embarked on a long night of tweeting over the Pacific. Speaking to reporters as he left for Air Force One, the President let loose at an array of those who angered him at that moment, including: his Japanese hosts (it’s so unfair, he told reporters, that Americans should have to defend Japan if it’s attacked and suffers through “World War Three,” while the Japanese would do nothing for Americans in a war except watch “on a Sony television”); his German allies (that nato defense-spending again); the chairman of the Federal Reserve (I can fire him, Trump asserted); and even the U.S. women’s soccer team (one of whose stars said that there was no bleeping way she was going to the White House to meet Trump).
The President had no such harsh words for Putin or Erdoğan or the Saudi prince known as M.B.S., despite the fact that a U.N. report had just found credible evidence of his involvement in the gruesome killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist. Quite the opposite, in fact. When a reporter asked Trump what he planned to discuss with Putin in their first meeting since the Mueller report found that Moscow had interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections on Trump’s behalf in a “sweeping and systematic fashion,” the President retorted that it was “none of your business.” On Friday, when Trump finally met Putin, he began the meeting in Osaka by joking with Putin about the 2016 election hacking. When asked if he would tell the Russian President not to interfere again in 2020, Trump seemed almost playful, wagging his finger at Putin. “Don’t meddle in the election, please,” Trump said. The rest of the exchange was all pleasantries, including a mutual laugh about “fake news” as reporters were ushered out of the room. Later, Russian news outlets reported that Trump had responded “positively” to Putin’s invitation to come to Moscow next year for a parade. It was left to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, to issue a stern rebuttal to Putin, defending Western liberalism and tweeting that it was Putin-style “authoritarianism, personality cults, and the rule of oligarchs” that was “really obsolete.”
The President’s outing in Osaka did not go unnoticed in Miami, where Democrats saw the split-screen news coverage of Trump being Trump overseas during their debate as a possibly winning moment. Senator Michael Bennet, of Colorado, made a point of mentioning the President’s pre-Osaka rant in answering the sole question in Thursday night’s debate that was devoted to foreign policy, a question to which he, like most of the others who answered it, responded by promising to “restore the relationships that he’s destroyed with our allies.” In the course of two nights and four hours of debate among the twenty Democratic candidates, there was certainly consensus about the damage Trump has done to America’s standing in the world. There was, however, little sense of how these candidates might exercise renewed American leadership at a time of Trumpian disruption and emboldened autocrats.
Two candidates, Senator Kamala Harris, of California, on Thursday night, and Governor Jay Inslee, of Washington, on Wednesday night, made a point of calling Trump the greatest national-security threat that America faces. But if that is actually the case, then Democrats as a group had little specific to say about it, nor were they pressed to do so by the five NBC moderators. Sure, they professed concern about global climate change and (with the exception of Senator Cory Booker) promised to return to the Iran nuclear deal that Trump unilaterally withdrew from. It was hard to discern, however, what kind of world view the candidates were offering, or how they would differentiate themselves from a President who has chosen a course of “America First,” America alone.
Former Vice-President Joe Biden’s message was restoration; others presented themselves as the incarnation of generational renewal (Pete Buttigieg), American-style socialism (Bernie Sanders), or, in the case of Thursday’s hands-down winner, the former California Attorney General Harris, prosecutorial cleansing. Uniting these different pitches was the idea of American democracy itself in need of restoration and renewal. The crisis that the debates were speaking to is the one inside the United States. The world, perhaps for understandable reasons, will have to wait for its moment on the American debate stage. Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is proclaiming that Western liberalism and decadent “multiculturalism” have had their day. On this, for now, official America is silent.
At least the candidates were talking about Trump on Thursday, even if they were not entirely clear on how they would handle him. During the first night of the Democratic debates, Trump was, as the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson put it on MSNBC, the Lord Voldemort of the debate, not spoken of, although his shadowy presence loomed large. All told, Trump was only mentioned about twenty times over the course of the first two-hour debate, much to the dismay of anti-Trump independents and Democratic moderates looking for a candidate who will prioritize defeating the President over inter-party policy squabbles. Polls have shown, as a recent Gallup survey did, that fifty-eight per cent of Democrats would prefer to focus on electability over ideology.
On Wednesday, the candidates seemed to believe that the debate was an either/or proposition: either take on Trump or talk about policy. Given that they were onstage with Senator Elizabeth (I Have a Plan for That) Warren, they opted for wonkery that seemed at times oddly disconnected from the President who has generated, or exacerbated, so many of the crises they described. On Thursday, the candidates looked and sounded much more sure of themselves, and virtually all of them had no trouble talking both Trump and policy. The Democrats skewed just as left, but they did so in a way that better acknowledged this strange moment of migrant children locked up in cages and Presidential love letters to the keeper of the North Korean gulag.
Even the most out-there candidate, the wellness guru Marianne Williamson, proclaimed that the overriding goal was defeating Trump. Sanders, the most ideological of the twenty, was coldly realistic when he noted that even he, the self-proclaimed socialist, is leading Trump in polls by ten points. “The American people understand,” Sanders said, that Trump is a “phony,” “a pathological liar,” and a “racist” who “lied to the American people” during the last campaign. “That’s how we beat Trump,” Sanders said. “We expose him for the fraud that he is.”
Trump and his Republicans, though, think that the debates were good news for the President. First of all, Biden, the Democrats’ rabidly anti-Trump front-runner, faltered, was taken down by a combination of his failure to respond sharply and a withering and highly personal attack by Harris, who castigated the former Vice-President for his failures in the desegregation fights of the nineteen-seventies that she lived through, as a young African-American child who was forced onto a school bus. Other candidates piled on, too, pointing out Biden’s vote for the 2003 Iraq War and making him squirm to defend the former President Barack Obama’s immigration policy. “Harris,” the Biden campaign said, in a statement after the debate, “is doing exactly what Trump wants.”
Even more than Biden’s perhaps predictable stumbles, however, the Republicans were focussed on the leftward tilt of the Democratic-policy proposals that was evident in both nights’ debates. Tom Cotton, the Republican senator from Arkansas, summed up their analysis in a tweet on Friday morning: “Democrats will take away your health insurance yet make you pay for health care for illegal aliens, whose illegal border crossing they will decriminalize, all while not deporting anyone (no matter how recently arrived) unless convicted of a serious felony.” Expect to see versions of this soon on television attack ads.
Trump appeared delighted with this, as well, interrupting one of his meetings in Osaka to chime in. Sitting with Brazil’s controversial new right-wing populist President, Jair Bolsonaro (who opened his own statement by supporting Trump’s reëlection), Trump switched the subject to the Democrats. “There’s a rumor the Democrats are going to change the name of the party from the ‘Democrat Party’ to the ‘Socialist Party,’ ” he said. “I’m hearing that.”
Trump, of course, will not be so lucky, but it won’t be for lack of Republicans trying. The G.O.P. has already decided to run against Democrats in 2020, not by defending Trump’s often indefensible conduct but by labelling his opponent, whoever he or she is, as a socialist. During two nights in Miami, there was plenty to feed that narrative. Politically unrealistic ideas, such as universal government-funded health care, a dream that the American left has held for decades, received plenty of airtime in the first debates of possibly the most consequential election of our lifetimes. The crisis of the West, not so much, which is too bad, because America’s crisis is a global one, too.