Mr Biden also tried to lay out the traditional policy case, including, by his flubby standards, with some half-decent answers on policing and climate-change policy. For his part, Mr Trump made a handful of disjointed, mostly defensive, claims for his administration’s achievements: on the subject of insulin pricing, for example, he said “I’m getting it for so cheap it’s like water.” But he did not describe any policy or future plan wholly or in detail.
Was there a strategy to this beyond his usual refusal to be constrained by rules and need to dominate? Maybe not; those urges explain most of what Mr Trump does. But the strategic implications of his thuggery look no less dire for being, in all likelihood, unplanned. Ahead of an election he appears on course to lose, he is telling his supporters that Democrats are not merely hostile opponents but somehow illegitimate. He also repeated in Cleveland his unfounded claim that the election will “be a fraud like you’ve never seen”. Asked to condemn the violent white supremacists who have already taken to the streets on his behalf, in Oregon and elsewhere, he failed to do so. None of this seemed likely to help his electoral prospects. It is the kind of behaviour that has turned a small majority of Americans against him. And yet over 40% are still with him to the hilt.
In “How Democracies Die”, published early in Mr Trump’s tenure, two Harvard scholars, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, described a slippery slope that starts with a trampling of democratic norms—thereby ending the degree of mutual trust between rivals that democracy requires—and proceeds through damage to institutions, especially those related to elections, to lawlessness and extremism. It is always possible to underestimate the shock absorbers in America’s vigorous, multi-tiered system. Yet at the federal level, it must be admitted, many of the warning lights they described are already flashing.