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How we would cover the 2nd presidential debate if it happened in another country

(Carley Margolis/FilmMagic)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

How would American media cover recent events in the presidential election if they happened in another country? How would the world respond differently? Here, to borrow a great idea from Slate's Joshua Keating, is a satirical take on the story you might be reading if Sunday’s presidential debate had taken place in, say, Iraq or Pakistan.

WASHINGTON — America’s imperiled democracy suffered a major blow on Sunday night, when right-wing presidential candidate Donald J. Trump threatened to jail his left-wing rival Hillary Clinton if he wins the country’s November election.

The threat came during a televised presidential debate held in the central city of St. Louis, Missouri, a location best known for ethnic strife and a local delicacy called “barbecue.” Clinton — the country’s former chief diplomat and wife of popular ex-leader William Clinton, known colloquially as “Bill” — had said that it was “awfully good” that Mr. Trump was not in charge of the country’s political system.

“Because you’d be in jail,” he fired back.

In one sense, the comments weren’t a surprise for America-watchers. Mr. Trump, a flamboyant mega-millionaire and former reality TV star, owes his political success to stoking authoritarian-nationalist sentiments.

He first rose to national political prominence by questioning the legitimacy of the current president, Barack Obama — a member of the country’s historically-persecuted African-American ethnic group — by suggesting he was secretly a foreigner. Trump has described America’s embattled Muslim minority as a terrorist threat, and vowed to cleanse the country of 11 million “illegal” immigrants.

Though these comments were condemned by much of the country’s political elite, they were quite popular with voters in Mr. Trump’s center-right Republican Party, fueling his shocking victory in the party’s primary contest earlier this year.

Yet threatening to jail Secretary Clinton, the leader of the center-left Democratic Party, seems to have crossed a different sort of line.

Since the end of the country’s civil war in 1865, America has enjoyed an unbroken string of peaceful transitions of power. The country’s commitment to free elections and open political debate is a major part of the national mythos, revered nearly as much as the country’s most popular sport (a kind of gladiatorial combat known, bafflingly, as “football.”)

By suggesting he would throw Secretary Clinton in jail, despite a state security agency having publicly announced that she has not broken the law, Mr. Trump has cast this commitment into doubt. He has taken his authoritarian leanings beyond the persecution of minority groups and is now targeting a member of the deeply entrenched ruling class, an elite dominated by the European majority ethnic group.

It was an attack on the idea of political dissent itself, from the leader of one of the country’s two major political parties.

“There is no precedent in modern US history for directly vowing to prosecute your opponent in a presidential election,” says Tom Nichols, a professor at the state-run Naval War College in the tiny northern province of Rhode Island.

Proposals like Mr. Trump’s are quite common in “authoritarian democracies,” countries with democratic elections but weak civil rights protections. In Turkey, for example, incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has routinely prosecuted political opponents, including private citizens whose only crime was sharing a Facebook meme comparing him to Lord of the Rings character Gollum.

Yet the United States has long sold itself as one of the world’s premiere liberal democracies. Its free speech protections are some of the strongest in the world; past persecution of Communist dissidents is seen by most Americans today as one of the most shameful episodes in United States history.

Mr. Trump’s threat to prosecute Secretary Clinton drags America back toward its past, and toward an authoritarian model of elected officials using the state to repress dissent.

A party in chaos

Despite the monumental nature of Trump’s threat, some members of America’s fractious and widely disliked media described Mr. Trump as the winner of Sunday night’s debate.

“It was Donald Trump's most effective debate performance to date,” Joe Scarborough, a former elected official turned television host, said on MSNBC, a channel generally aligned with the ruling Democrats.

This speaks more to the dire situation of the Trump campaign than anything else.

A scant 48 hours before Sunday’s debate, a video recording of Mr. Trump bragging about sexual assault was published by the capital’s Washington Post newspaper. In the 2005 tape, Mr. Trump was heard openly boasting about using his past position as a reality TV star to manhandle women, using a popular slang term for a woman’s genitals.

“I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait,” Mr. Trump said. “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy.”

The revelation led to a swift and near-immediate backlash from across the political spectrum. Republican officials, many of whom privately admit that the self-proclaimed billionaire’s rise is embarrassing the party, publicly condemned the comments. Several Republican elected officials attempted to launch a kind of soft coup, demanding Mr. Trump withdraw from the race in favor of Mike Pence, the religious radical and governor of the conservative Indiana region who is running as Trump’s vice presidential pick.

This spate of defections so close to a major election is unprecedented in modern American history, and experts on the United States began pronouncing an end to Trump’s campaign. In America’s two-party political system, winning the presidency is nearly impossible without the support of a major party, even for a member of the ultra-rich elite like Mr. Trump.

Trump’s debate performance appeared, at least at first, to have stanched the bleeding. His harsh attacks on Secretary Clinton, an object of deep hated for Republicans since her husband’s administration began about 25 years ago, brought some unity to the fractious Republican coalition.

Gov. Pence singled out Trump’s pledge to jail Clinton as a “strong moment,” a particularly worrying sign for panicked supporters of American democracy.

Yet it is hard to tell how long this will last. Just before publication, Paul Ryan, the Republican leader of the country’s lower legislative chamber, announced that he will no longer publicly defend Mr. Trump.

Though the dysfunctional US Congress is currently less popular with Americans than cockroaches, Mr. Ryan is widely beloved among Republicans, who see him as a kind of ideological guru. So his announcement may well shatter the fragile calm that had emerged on Sunday night.

The question now is whether Mr. Trump’s flailing campaign can survive these blows — and, if it does, how serious of a threat to American democracy he will turn out to be.