One of the greatest threats to the health of liberal democracies at present is the rampant spread of lies and disinformation by powerful and influential people and organisations. We live in a world where lies about global warming, election results, refugees, vaccines, and many other issues of public importance circulate with alarming ease. As a result, the most urgent challenges we face are not being seriously addressed, and vital public institutions — like our electoral systems — are being undermined.

Conversations in which accurate information is discussed and debated are the lifeblood of healthy democracies, whereas the dominance of disinformation is a sign of a slide into authoritarianism — perhaps even fascism.

Donald Trump is among the worst offenders in the war on truth. Much of what the former president says is either false or altogether fanciful. The lies he tells are often so blatant that it hardly takes a great thinker or skilful debater to expose them. But exposed they must be, not blithely accepted as the price of doing democratic business with a character like Trump. Unless self-serving propaganda and claims of “alternative facts” are confronted with vigilance and seriousness, democracy’s very future is imperilled.

Democracy on the ballot … and in the balance

The inability of President Joe Biden to call out and confront Trump’s lies during last week’s presidential debate was perhaps the most egregious aspect of what was already an historically bad performance. This failure was unforgivable in the context of an election that President Biden himself has billed as likely to determine the future of democracy in the United States. As he put it in a speech to mark the third anniversary of the attack on the Capitol: “as we begin this election year, we must be clear: Democracy is on the ballot.”

But rather than calling out Trump’s brazen falsehoods, President Biden struggled to complete his own thoughts and fashion them into something that resembled a coherent sentence. He seemed to possess neither the confidence nor the mental agility to rebut Trump and mount a persuasive alternative.

There are two moments during the debate that stood out. The first came when President Biden tried to answer to a question on how he would address national deficit:

"We’d be able to right — wipe out his debt. We’d be able to help make sure that — all those things we need to do, childcare, elder care, making sure that we continue to strengthen our healthcare system, making sure that we’re able to make every single solitary person eligible for what I’ve been able to do with the COVID – excuse me, with dealing with everything we have to do with — uh — look — if — we finally beat Medicare."

Then, when Trump claimed that Democrats support taking “the life of a child in the eighth month, the ninth month, and even after birth,” President Biden could only manage this garbled response:

"Look, there’s so many young women who have been — including a young woman who just was murdered and he went to the funeral. The idea that she was murdered by — by — by an immigrant coming in and [inaudible] talk about that.

But here’s the deal, there’s a lot of young women who are being raped by their — by their in-laws, by their — by their spouses, brothers and sisters, by — just — it’s just — it’s just ridiculous. And they can do nothing about it."

Given both the gravity of the situation involving women’s reproductive rights after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and Trump’s campaign speeches promising there will be mass deportations of illegal immigrants and the establishment of detention camps, President Biden needed to do a lot better.

At another of the debate’s low points — one which has not received anywhere near enough attention in the media coverage — Trump asserted that President Biden should let the Israeli government go and “finish the job” in Gaza. How can this be construed other than as a brazen endorsement of even greater destruction and loss of civilian life? But again, Biden could give no credible account of himself, his policy, or the United States’ position on the future of the conflict. What was left to linger in the air was Trump’s bellicose disregard for the lives of Palestinians.

There were, to be sure, failings that cannot be blamed on President Biden: the lack of fact checking by the host station CNN during the debate, for example, and the total absence of questions from the moderators directed at Trump about his claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. These point to tendency not to hold Trump accountable for his actions or lies. The next day, CNN reported that Trump made 30 false claims in the debate.

Above the law?

The inability to hold Trump to account has emboldened the already shameless showman to further defy democratic procedures and the rule of law. The recent decision of the Supreme Court and the heretofore successful strategy on the part of Trump’s legal teams to “delay, delay, delay” the remaining three cases brought against him, almost guarantee that Trump will not be prosecuted for his role in attempting to interfere with the results of the last presidential election and disrupt the transfer of power on 6 January 2021. This would be a travesty of might over right, and would signal to the world that the US justice system is subject to the authoritarian dictates of a would-be despot.

America is on the precipice of becoming a post-democracy, if not pariah state among the international community. The stakes of the 2024 presidential election could hardly be higher. The outcome of this election is more important than the reputation or legacy of any one person. The reputation of the United States as a functioning liberal democracy hangs in the balance.