I was so staggered by what I saw in the second presidential debate that it's taken me nearly 24 hours to process it. Even now, I've probably failed to absorb the true meaning of what transpired. What we saw was a man on the edge of a mental health collapse, someone who could not contain his rage and who babbled incoherently when he wasn't trying to purely menace Hillary Clinton. It was a town hall-style debate, and (bizarre) form has it that the candidates are expected to wander the stage. At one point, Hillary passed close enough to Trump that I though he was going to physically attack her.
But the psychometrics of the debate were actually the secondary concern. Rather, what really stunned were the two most disqualifying statements ever made by a presidential candidate. It's important to separate these various strands out. Trump is creepy, by his own account a sexual predator, and a racist of the first order. But we've had slave-owners as presidents, war criminals, and almost certainly sexual predators. This makes them moral monsters, but it didn't threaten the republic. Trump's most shocking moments last night were not his defense of bragging about sexual assault--it was these three answers, which demonstrate how dangerously incurious and ignorant he is. He probably shouldn't even be allowed to tour the White House, much less reside there.What exactly is Trump trying to do here while Hillary is answering a question. #debate pic.twitter.com/caXu9ZBVrE— Josh Jordan (@NumbersMuncher) October 10, 2016
Let's consider these in ascending order of outrageousness.
1. Ignorance of basic government functions
The following exchange, which I'll edit for brevity, went like this:
Trump: Hillary Clinton has friends that want all of these provisions, including, they want the carried interest provision, which is very important to Wall Street people, but they really want the carried interest provision, which I believe Hillary is leaving, and it's very interesting why she is leaving carried interestThe man who would become President hasn't the vaguest idea of how government functions. The exchange above would be barely forgivable if you overheard it over the Thanksgiving turkey, but it's inexcusable in a presidential nominee. Making laws in the US is a bastard because there are dozens of squeeze points from the moment a bill is introduced to committee until it survives a veto from a president. It's far harder in the US than nearly any other modern democracy, and negotiating this minefield means, at the barest minimum, understanding how it functions. This is like hiring an illiterate to be editor of the New Yorker.
Clinton: Well, here we go again. I have been in favor of getting rid of carried interest for years starting when I was a senator from New York. But that's not the point here.
Trump: Why didn't you do it? Why didn’t you do it?
Clinton: Because I was a senator with a Republican president.
Trump: You could have done it. If you were an effective senator, you could have done it. But you were not an effective senator.
Clinton: You know, under our constitution, presidents have something called veto power.
2. Jailing your political opponents
The second disqualifying moment, and surely the most shocking moment in politics in my lifetime, was when Trump casually ad-libbed a threat to jail Clinton.
But if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation. Because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it. And we’re gonna have a special prosecutor. When I speak, I go out and speak, the people of this country are furious. In my opinion, the people that have been long time workers at the FBI are furious. There has never been anything like this where e-mails, and you get a subpoena. You get a subpoena, and after getting the subpoena you delete 33,000 e-mails and then you acid wash them or bleach them, as you would say. Very expensive process. So we’re gonna get a special prosecutor and we’re gonna look into it. Because you know what, people have been -- their lives have been destroyed for doing 1/5 of what you have done. And it’s a disgrace, and honestly, you oughta be ashamed of yourself.Following the GOP convention in July, I wrote about the danger of transgressing norms in a democracy, arguing that these norms, far more than written law, are what keep a democracy intact.
No, what's remarkable is that he has shattered the norms that govern politics. Societies function not because of formal laws, but because of unwritten agreements. It's the way civilized people navigate the world. These unwritten agreements undergird government function, and critically. In 2000, Al Gore acceded to the nakedly political (and internally inconsistent) fiat by the Supreme Court that installed Bush as president. In functioning governments, the judiciary's rule is sacrosanct--if it is nothing but a rubber stamp to the party in office, then there's really no law. Once one branch defies another, things fall apart. And there's no law that says they can't defy each other. Had Gore said, "Nah, I don't accept it. Democrats, stand with me as we continue to fight this battle," things could have gone sideways very fast.Since that convention, the calls of "lock her up" have become a common feature of Trump rallies, and he has in the past few weeks spoken darkly of how he might contest a loss because of the "rigged" election he anticipated. This is all no doubt a function of his mental health problems; his narcissism is so profound he cannot think in terms beyond his own personal good. Even as he began crashing in the polls following the first debate and provoked dozens of elected Republicans to forsake him after the sexual assault video, he has never considered the Republican Party. Now individual Republicans are stuck with a doomed choice--stick with Trump and lose all independents and swing voters, or abandon him and lose the base. It is now hard to see how the election doesn't turn into a massive electoral debacle for the Party.
We should have no sympathy for them, though, because they courted this obviously deranged, racist incompetent because they mistakenly thought it would be good for their prospects. Trump, flailing last night, was ugly and incoherent as usual, and the reviews this morning are catastrophic. The fear that he might actually win are diminishing very fast. That should not assuage our anxiety about how fragile our democracy is, nor make us feel any more sanguine about the Republicans who nearly elevated him to the presidency (by which I mean nearly every Republican, since only a handful opposed him from the start). Things in the body politic are not healthy, and though we survived this scare, we shouldn't be feeling too relieved yet.