There have been times during this presidential campaign when I have suggested that the tools of normal political punditry are inadequate to capture what is happening. Last night’s debate was one of those times. The most egregious example of that failure comes from headlines like this one, at Politico: “UGLIEST DEBATE EVER: Clinton says Trump’s campaign is exploding. Trump calls Clinton the devil.” In other words, Clinton saying what everyone knows to be true is just like Trump calling his opponent “the devil.” That is the lowest form of both-sider-ism.
As I read commentary this morning on the debate, my mind can’t wrap itself around the normal kind of analysis that weighs the positive and negative of each candidate’s performance and how that is likely to affect their chances going forward. That’s because, when it comes to the Republican nominee, what we witnessed was a candidate who dismissed bragging about sexual assault as nothing more than “locker room talk.” He also promised that, if elected, he will appoint a special prosecutor to go after his opponent and suggested that if he were president already, she’d be in jail. He said his opponent had “hate in her heart” and called her the devil. He answered a Muslim woman’s question about fear of Islamophobia by spewing more Islamophobia. He attempted to use his physical presence to threaten his opponent. And he lied … over, and over, and over again. The only rational response to behavior like that is to call it out as shocking.
The problem right now—as Josh Marshall pointed out immediately after the debate—is that we’ve been living in this abuser’s house for a while now and have been numbed.
By any pre-2016 standard we know, the entirety of angry, blustering manner would be fatal for a presidential candidate. But we’ve been living with this guy for a year and a half. We all have a little bit of the trauma of living in the home of an abuser now. We’re accustomed to it. To a degree it starts to feel normal.
To use a cultural reference that seems appropriate for the moment, I’ll call on Cher.
Snap out of it. THIS IS NOT NORMAL. The only thing that normalizes it is our failure to be shocked and reject this kind of thing from a presidential candidate.