ST. LOUIS—The most important part of Sunday night’s presidential debate happened within the first 20 minutes. The rest wasn’t uninteresting—at one point, Donald Trump confessed to not paying income taxes, at another broke with his running mate on what to do in Syria—but it wasn’t vital. It wasn’t, and shouldn’t be, the chief takeaway.
The honor goes to the first major moment of the debate. That’s where, after a lengthy exchange, a menacing and almost unhinged Trump threatened to put Clinton in prison should he win the White House in November. Even in a campaign in which Republican crowds chant “lock her up” and Trump surrogates play-act anti-Clinton tribunals, it was extraordinary and disturbing. The behavior of a despot, not of a president.
The ramp-up to this was revelatory. Trump was cornered, and he responded with a burst of banana-republic machismo, vowing to investigate and prosecute a political opponent using the powers of his office. It was a remarkable moment: a presidential nominee promising to rip up the foundations of liberal democracy for the sake of getting off a good attack line.
It began with the first question. One of the two moderators, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, asked Trump to account for the now-infamous tape in which the Republican nominee claims to “grab” women “by the pussy,” bragging about sexual assault. Trump called it “locker room talk” and tried to pivot to ISIS. Cooper stopped him and pressed him on the question, which he tried to avoid. Trump returned to his campaign slogan—“We’re going to make America great again”—and Cooper turned the question over to Clinton, who hit one of her themes.
“Donald Trump is different. I said starting back in June that he was not fit to be president and commander in chief,” said Clinton, before rattling off the laundry list of groups that Trump has attacked and insulted over the course of the campaign. He responded—“It’s just words, folks. Just words.”—and the moderators brought the debate back to audience questions, including one submitted online. This one also focused on the tape. “When you walked off that bus at age 59, were you a different man, or did that behavior continue until just recently?” Again, Trump called this “locker room talk.” But then he went in a different direction, one presaged by both his Friday night apology video and an unusual pre-debate “press conference” involving three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault.
“There’s never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women,” said Trump of the former president. “You can say any way you want to say it, but Bill Clinton was abusive to women.” He continued, tying Hillary to her husband’s history with women. “Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously.”
Clinton had a chance to respond, and she did, again reciting Trump’s attacks on a variety of groups and individuals, from the Khan family—whose son died fighting in Iraq—and Judge Gonzalo Curiel, to President Obama, whom Trump repeatedly attacked as illegitimate on the basis of his birth.
It’s at this juncture that the Republican nominee—already teetering on the edge of decorum—went off the rails. He accused Clinton of starting the “birther” conspiracy; he questioned her friendship with Michelle Obama; he accused Clinton of rigging the Democratic primary to rob Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders of the election; and he slammed her for her emails, all leading to an explosion of contempt and menace.
“If I win,” said Trump, “I’m going to instruct the attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation because there’s never been so many lies, so much deception.” He continued: “[W]e’re going to get a special prosecutor because people have been, their lives have been destroyed for doing one fifth of what you’ve done.” And when Clinton gave her response—“It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law of our country”—Trump jumped in with a quip.
“Because you’d be in jail.”
There’s no charitable read here, or at least not one that respects the rules and structure of the English language. Trump’s meaning is plain. Should he win the Oval Office, he will use his authority vis-à-vis the Justice Department to launch an investigation of his rival in the presidential election. And because he believes Clinton uniquely perfidious, this investigation would lead to her prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment. As he said, she would be in jail.
Historians, commentators, and “Never Trump” Republicans quickly grasped the weight of his statement. “Only time I’ve ever heard a candidate threatening to jail his opponent was in the Congo. He lost & was later convicted of war crimes,” tweeted former Mitt Romney campaign manager Stuart Stevens. On television, CBS’s Bob Schieffer said Trump’s threat reminded him of a “banana republic.” And University of Virginia historian Nicole Hemmer stressed that this was a “breathtaking violation of our democratic tradition.”
She’s right. The United States is not a perfect democracy. But one thing we can say is that, in America, political opponents are just that: political opponents. They aren’t hounded and they aren’t imprisoned. It isn’t a crime to be on the other side of an election. To go down that road is to take a shortcut to despotism and repression.
On Sunday, to an audience of tens of millions of Americans, Trump voiced his contempt for the norms that define and safeguard our democracy with a promise to jail his chief political opponent. This, again, was the most important moment of the debate. Nothing else—not Clinton’s poor answers for her private speeches, nor Trump’s abject ignorance—comes close. And it’s all the more important given Trump’s larger platform. If elected, the Republican would use the force of the state against nonwhites and religious minorities, from forced deportations of unauthorized Hispanic immigrants to surveillance of Muslim Americans and a return to stop-and-frisk. Trump already promises an authoritarian state for millions of Americans. This statement—planned and strategically deployed—just shows the scope of his vision.
In all of this, it’s worth noting the complicity of the GOP leadership. An hour after Trump promised to jail his opponent if elected president, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus praised his nominee’s performance. “Hillary Clinton spent the night struggling to defender her failed record,” he said on Twitter.
American democracy needs two healthy parties, at least, to survive and to thrive. Sunday showed we have just one.