Watching the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, I reflected on my career-long involvement with public television and PBS, which celebrated its 50th anniversary on Oct. 4.
I remembered working on my first presidential debate, that between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, the first of many presidential debates covered by MacNeil/Lehrer in its various iterations. The debate was unfailingly polite though argumentative as one would expect — so different from the boorishness of the President in the debate we recently witnessed.
Even more, though, I thought back to a different event. In August of 1975, as “The Robert MacNeil Report” was preparing to make its debut, Robin (Robert) MacNeil and I traveled to London to take part in an unusual TV production, a co-production of the BBC and WNET-13. Robin was to be co-anchor along with a BBC anchor; I was there to represent WNET’s interests. The show was called “Goodbye, America.” It was a reenactment of the last session of the British Parliament before America’s Declaration of Independence was presented to King George III.
As you know, the American Revolution followed, giving birth to the United States of America. As with most revolutions, it was not supported by all colonists. I’m not even sure it was supported by most of them. That’s not unusual. The coming to power of Hitler and the Nazis was accomplished by a minority party. The Bolsheviks were hardly a majority of Russian revolutionaries and a tiny minority of the Russian people. The same is true of Mao’s Chinese revolution.
I mention these other revolutions because if you have been paying attention at all to Donald Trump over the past four years, it is evident that he has been preparing for a new American revolution particularly as he has lost support, this one against America and its Constitution.
Since he has been President, he has been accusing Democrats (who, after all, won a clear majority of the popular vote) of attempting a coup. It is clear, however, particularly given his statements at the end of the first debate, that it is he, the President of the United States, who is threatening a coup.
Since he became President, Trump has joined in the long-time effort of Republicans in attempts to suppress the vote, trying to disenfranchise voters and voting in demographic groups—Blacks, the poor, and the elderly in particular — who might be unsupportive of them.
He has stated, over and over again, that the election result will be fraudulent long before all votes have been cast and without any evidence that widespread fraud has ever occurred or is occurring now.
He is implying his supporters should try to intimidate Democratic voters.
He is preparing to legally challenge any vote count that results in him losing, as he expects to do.
If he loses in the courts, there are intimations that the election should be thrown into the Congress where Republican governed states might overthrow the elected electors voted for by the voters.
He has intimated that he might not leave office no matter what the outcome of the election.
He or his supporters have directly or indirectly intimated that he should declare martial law under some emergency power (like the Insurrection Act of 1807) and militarily take over the country.
In the Proud Boys and other White supremacist groups, he has apparently found his Brown Shirts, the equivalent of Hitler’s thugs before he seized control of Germany.
In Chad Wolf, his Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, he seems to have found a partner willing to deploy the domestic paramilitary forces of the government to act at his bidding.
In William Barr, his Attorney General, he has apparently found someone to back whatever he does through the Justice Department.
When all is said and done, does Trump have any regard for the law at all, much less the Constitution? The evidence of his behavior throughout his life, before and after he became President, is that he does not. He only cares about the law if he can bend it to suit his purposes. His behavior has always appeared more like that of a criminal then a law-abiding citizen.
Why should we expect that to change?
And then, as always, there is Russia lurking in the background. There is no question by anyone in federal law enforcement and our national security agencies that Russia is once again trying to disrupt our country and our elections. The bi-partisan report of the Senate Intelligence Committee concurs. Is anyone surprised to hear the Russia is trying to exacerbate divisions between Americans and distrust the electoral process, just like Trump? Would anyone be in the least bit surprised if Russia tried to make Trump’s predictions of election fraud true?
The revelations made possible by the New York Times through Trump’s tax returns leave at least as many questions as were answered. The questions include those of criminal fraud and tax evasion committed by Trump, his family and organization. But, once again, the most serious questions are reserved for the national security implications of the new information. Most obviously, to whom does Trump personally owe over $400 million? What individuals? What banks? What countries? How much of the $20 million in yearly profit that Trump Tower earns comes from foreign money? Who pays it, and what connections do they have to foreign governments and intelligence agencies, the Russians in particular? At this point, the same questions should be asked about all the money flowing into the Trump organization, the Trump family, and President Trump himself. The questions abound.
On top of that, we now know that the Muller investigation did not investigate Trump’s financial affairs. The President, through the Justice Department, has been strenuously fighting any attempt by anyone to investigate them, including Congress. Maybe New York’s District Attorney and the state’s Attorney General will be more successful in determining his criminal liability. Regardless, nothing public, other than legal arguments, is likely to be seen until after the election.
We also know that the counter-intelligence investigation of Trump instigated by the FBI following James Comey’s firing was never undertaken, not by Muller or anyone else in the FBI or other agencies. For all the noise about the Steele dossier, we still don’t know what is true and/or false in it.
Questions and doubts, even more than before, still abound.
It is disappointing that so many of Trump’s followers don’t care a whit about any of this. Despite his boorishness, his incoherence, his apparent incompetence, his rants, his half-truths, hyperbole, distortions and outright lies, policies that seem so at odds with America’s national security along with the health and economic interests of the vast majority of its citizens, his supporters cheer him on. I’m beyond expecting that to change.
How serious is Trump about all his post-election day threats, particularly the most extreme of them?
I have no idea. Given the history of the last 4 years, it would be the greatest folly to dismiss them, to think that he would never do any of that. We have no idea what he will or will not do when the big crunch comes.
Once again, I think back to 1975 and the TV program “Goodbye, America,” aired for the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. And I wonder, for the first time really, if there is an existential threat to the very existence of America itself, a threat far greater than that of Covid-19. Are we—am I—willing to bid farewell to the Constitution, to America the Beautiful, to the Golden City on the Hill? Am I — are you — willing to say goodbye to America?
Only you, America’s citizens, America’s voters can answer that.
Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now-retired Senior Producer for what is now called “PBS NewsHour.” He is a resident of Hillsdale.