Tonight's debate will be Donald Trump's last chance to really change the dynamic in the race for the White House. He is trailing in all the polls. His path to 270 electoral college votes shifted from narrow to virtually non-existent with his poor performance in the first debate and the subsequent release of a video in which he spoke with unspeakable vulgarity and misogyny about using his power to assault women.
Mr. Trump is also a man for whom the nastiest thing you can say about a person is that he or she is "a loser." That alone should have given Christians of all stripes pause before supporting him: We worship a God who has identified his justice and mercy with the cause of the "losers" throughout history. But as the prospect of not only a loss but a humiliatingly large loss looms, Trump is likely to become more and more dangerous. I suspect we shall see just how dangerous on display tonight.
He has consistently thrown unsubstantiated aspersions at his opponents, first his fellow Republicans seeking the presidential nomination, but also at others, such as Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star mother whose son died in Iraq. No longer content to attack his political opponents and their supporters, he has recently questioned the very fiber of American democracy, the integrity of the ballot. Many Republican secretaries of state, who are constitutionally charged with protecting the integrity of the franchise have understandably voiced their disquiet at his attacks, such as Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted.
Trump is playing with fire. Questioning the validity of an election he seems destined to lose in advance shows the degree to which he is a big cry baby, unwilling to take responsibility for running the worst campaign in modern history. It shows a recklessness that is stunning: For all of its flaws, democracy remains a human achievement of the first order. Those who seek to casually undermine it are doing a very immoral thing, and a very dangerous thing.
A good rule of thumb in life is to stay away from people who are dangerous. Many Republicans, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, are certainly staying as far from Trump as they possibly can be. So it was all the more startling to see this video and read this statement from Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), speaking in terms we have only previously heard from surrogates for Mr. Trump.
Archbishop Kurtz's words are both disturbing and puzzling. They are disturbing because he says he is commenting on "recent reports that some may have sought to interfere in the internal life of the Church for short-term political gain." Actually, he is commenting on emails that have not been authenticated, that were apparently stolen by a tyrannical foreign government that represses Catholics and handed off to an anarchist, Julian Assange, holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London to avoid facing charges of rape.
Additionally, the emails released detail the kind of conversations hundreds of thousands of Catholics have all the time. Are we to believe from the archbishop that the lay faithful are to be silent on matters concerning "the internal life of the Church"? And, nothing in the emails I have seen detailed such an effort to affect "political gain" anyway. There are two groups mentioned in the emails, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG) and Catholics United, the latter of which no longer exists and about which I know very little. But, CACG was founded by, among others, the late Ambassador Thomas Melady, who served as Vatican ambassador under President George H. W. Bush and was one of the leaders of "Catholics for Romney." CACG was formed to defend Catholic social doctrine in the public square and so far from pushing an agenda contrary to the church, CACG was attacked repeatedly by Catholics for Choice precisely because it defended the church's opposition to abortion and still does.
It is also disturbing that the archbishop mentions the unauthenticated emails and declines to mention the video in which Mr. Trump speaks proudly of sexually assaulting women, a video that did not require authentication. In his statement, Archbishop Kurtz mentions, in passing, "political discourse [that] has demeaned women." There has been some of that, of course, but the Trump video does more than demean women, it talks about the sexual assault of women. That Archbishop Kurtz mentions it in passing, but leads with a false interpretation of the emails, is a sad indicator of the political pressures and biases within the hierarchy of the Catholic church and among the staffers at the USCCB.
The archbishop's statement is puzzling because most prognosticators indicate that Hillary Clinton has an 87 percent chance of winning the election, or higher. At a time when Speaker Ryan has bailed on Trump, why is the president of the U.S. bishops reading a script that sounds like it was crafted in Trump Tower? Not only will the U.S. bishops have business to conduct with the next administration, so will the Holy See. Is it prudent to alienate the next president of the United States?
Eight years ago, Sen. John McCain brought in Joe the plumber to try and salvage his campaign. This year it is Joe the Archbishop. It is too grim, and the U.S. bishops who gather in Baltimore next month should demand to know how and why this statement and video came to be. Do not Archbishop Kurtz's words identify the USCCB not only with the Republican Party, something we have grown accustomed to, but also with the nastiest, ugliest and most pathetic campaign in the modern history of the United States? There is an answer to that question, and the other U.S. bishops, and perhaps the nuncio too, should demand such an answer.
[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]