In the aftermath of a spectacular meltdown, digital mastermind Brad Parscale is being disappeared from the Trump 2020 website. Photo credit: Aaron of L.A. Photography/Shutterstock.com.

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So, what was happening while we were distracted by Donald Trump’s shocking performance in the first presidential debate this week?

First, the President’s tax returns, publicized daily by the New York Times since last Sunday, have taken a back seat to his support for the white supremacist gang the Proud Boys and his attacks on a peaceful election.

Second, coronavirus news is not getting the airtime it should. More than a million people around the world have died of COVID-19, including more than 205,000 Americans. Florida is seeing a surge in new cases since Governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order allowing restaurants and bars to reopen. The Midwest is also in a surge, with record numbers of new cases in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Kansas. Wisconsin hospitals are nearing capacity and South Dakota has the highest rate of spread in the country. Experts worry about a dramatic rise in cases as cold weather settles in.

Third, Brad Parscale, Trump’s former campaign manager, left the Trump campaign on September 30 after his involuntary hospitalization for psychiatric evaluation over the weekend: this followed a 911 call from his wife and his threat to self-harm. He cited his need “to focus on my family and get help dealing with the overwhelming stress.” Parscale knows the secrets of the Trump campaign since the heady days of 2016, and the Trump family is reportedly worried he will begin to cooperate with law enforcement about possible campaign finance violations.

Trump 2020 staff is scrubbing Parscale’s presence from the website.

These three big stories are on the back burner because, on the Presidential Debate stage and in front of a national audience, when asked to disavow white supremacist thugs, Trump told the Proud Boys to “Stand Back and Stand By” before saying that “somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.” This statement, observers note, sounds much like a precursor to calling them to action against those he perceives to be enemies.

Trump also called for “poll watchers” to prevent fraudulent ballots and warned that Democrats are going to steal the election from him. He said he expects the election results will take “months” as the campaign challenges mail-in ballots, and that he hopes the case will end up in the Supreme Court.

Days after the debate, it feels like Trump’s embrace of white supremacist gangs, and his open declaration that he is planning an assault on our democratic process, was a turning point for the campaign, and for the nation.

The president reportedly is happy with the way the evening went, believing that his supporters love to see him go on the attack. Today he has complained that he “was debating two people last night” (which included the moderator, Fox’s Chris Wallace) but that he had won and it was “fun.”

Trump’s team is dutifully echoing his talking points. Campaign spokeswoman Thea McDonald told the Washington Post that “Poll watchers are critical to ensuring the fairness of any election, and President Trump’s volunteer poll watchers will be trained to ensure all rules are applied equally, all valid ballots are counted, and all Democrat rule-breaking is called out…. And if fouls are called, the Trump campaign will go to court to enforce the laws, as rightfully written by state legislatures, to protect every voter’s right to vote. President Trump and his team will be ready to make sure polls are run correctly, securely, and transparently as we work to deliver the free and fair election Americans deserve.”

This high-minded language is a weird echo of words and phrasing white supremacists used in the American South after the Civil War, as they drove Black voters and white Republicans from the polls, turning the region into a one-party state for generations.

Neo-Nazis and right-wing thugs are thrilled they have a fellow traveler in the White House. “I got shivers,” Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer, wrote Wednesday. “I still have shivers. He is telling the people to stand by. As in: Get ready for war.”

But not everyone was thrilled with Trump’s performance. Focus groups of women were turned off by his bullying, and his male supporters thought he interrupted too much. An adviser called it “a disaster.” Politico’s chief political correspondent Tim Alberta thought Trump looked exhausted and “behaved like cornered prey.” The Commission on Presidential Debates is reworking its rules to try to prevent another spectacle like last night. Foreign observers were “aghast,” according to an Associated Press report; Kenyan commentator Patrick Gathara wrote: “This debate would be sheer comedy if it wasn’t such a pitiful and tragic advertisement for U.S. dysfunction.”

Even within the White House people were dismayed. “It’s nuts” and “total lunacy,” an official and a staffer told Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman. A prominent Republican added: “Trump didn’t win over any voters, and he pissed off a lot of people.”

Trump’s people are trying to walk back the president’s support for the Proud Boys. They are also trying to convince him to temper his future performances. Dana Bash from CNN reported today that “A source familiar with the president’s debate prep tells CNN that they wanted him to be aggressive, but not act like Jason from Friday the 13th.” Republican lawmakers were largely silent today about Trump’s performance, although Susan Collins (R-ME) agreed that Trump should have condemned white supremacist gangs — after she first tried to blame both sides for the debacle.

At his Wednesday rally in Minnesota, Trump said Biden is cancelling the next two debates, although Biden has said he’ll be there. Trump is also talking about getting rid of a term limit on the presidency and serving another eight, twelve, or sixteen years.

Americans who care about our electoral process are now trying to prepare for a crisis at the polls. “This is a blatant attempt at voter intimidation,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat. “It’s very important to be clear about that. It’s illegal. It is a crime to engage in voter intimidation or election interference.” Several state attorneys general say they will arrest anyone who tries to intimidate voters.

Perhaps most important was the news that the FBI’s Dallas Field Office released an intelligence report on Tuesday warning that a “violent extremist threat” is imminent, and that the period between now and the inauguration next January is a “potential flashpoint.” That threat comes not from the “left,” as Trump charges, but from the right-wing gangs that Trump is encouraging, including the Boogaloos, a staunchly anti-government group that is working to bring about a race war to speed up the collapse of the government. The report, which was obtained exclusively by The Nation, is titled “Boogaloo Adherents Likely Increasing Anti-Government Violent Rhetoric and Activities, Increasing Domestic Violent Extremist Threat in the FBI Dallas Area of Responsibility.” The report warns that there is “increased ‘patrolling’ or attendance at events” that serve the Boogaloos’ cause, including “otherwise peaceful and lawful protests.”

Wednesday, a federal judge in Montana rejected the attempts of the Trump campaign to stop the state from expanding mail-in voting. He permitted the new system to go into place, and called the idea of widespread voter fraud “fiction.”

Tell that to the president.

Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of history at Boston College. This was originally published in her Substack newsletter: get your free subscription here.

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