Kids, I want to you tell a fascinating story, the story of how I met your mother. Actually, no, that isn’t the story all. This is a very different story, a story about how reality lost its dang mind. Like all stories, it begins with a mad billionaire.
In the summer of 2015, your Uncle Trump, the Orangeman, decided Mexicans and Muslims and women were and always had been the problem, and wouldn’t shut up about it. Your Aunt Hillary, who hadn’t slept in about thirty years, was about to fight off an old man from Vermont who had a sizable van-bong constituency, right before she contracted pneumonia from Goldman Sachs. A year and half later of constant screaming—Saturday Night Live ate very well—and here we are.
Self-help books on optimism suggest that the reader consider the world objectively, to better see its wonderful features. Try to view everything anew, in other words. I agree with this practice. Let us observe the 2016 election with fresh eyes, and we will get a hint of what happened last night:
A billionaire and reality TV star, manifesting all of the signs of narcissism, the repulsive champion of white blue-collar populism in America, came to a stage in St. Louis having lost the previous debate. He had been coached by an immense former federal prosecutor from New Jersey, now Governor, who had closed a major bridge for revenge, and the former Mayor of New York, now decaying, who had appeared in drag numerous times and given a quasi-fascist speech at the RNC.
Oh, and this was after the billionaire had been backed by his repulsive former adversary, who had denied him in the city of Cleveland — this was a man who had been suggested publicly to be the Zodiac Killer and was certainly a frequent onanist in college.
The candidate, Trump, morally bankrupt, a mocker of handicapped people who had confessed to being Greek tragedy-level attracted to his daughter, had just admitted to repeated sexual assault. He did so on a recording, on bus named for a tabloid TV show. On this bus, which had been on the way to a soap opera set, he related a story of performing an anatomically impossible assault to a sycophant who, coincidentally, shared the name of the political dynasty he had recently crushed.
Oh, and all of this was revealed long after he had completed the murder of one of America’s oldest political parties, who had recently nominated him. There was more to come.
His opponent was the former first lady of America, then Senator and Secretary of State, who had survived multiple scandals and was suggested publicly to be either A) dying next week, B) a murderer, C) Nixon-level corrupt. The plain and obvious fact that she was none of these things, but an utterly vanilla member of the establishment, seemed to be the one thing nobody on either side could admit, although her public collapse during 9/11 certainly didn’t help.
Her husband, the smooth, Elvis-like shriveled remainder of the 42nd President, sat in the same audience as a quartet of the women he had been accused of sexually assaulting several decades ago. These same women had appeared earlier that day in a press conference, in a striking grotesquerie of cynical manipulation by Trump, an admitted sexual predator. The Orangeman’s gambit turned out to be for nothing, because it took backseat to a pleasant-faced man wearing a red sweater named Kenneth Bone, who asked an intelligent question about energy policy; the Internet promptly fell in love with him and he’s probably being booked on the Today Show as I type these words.
Oh, the Democratic nominee had almost been defeated by a Jewish Socialist, who wasn’t really a socialist from Vermont, who hadn’t even been a Democrat; he was a man who looked uncannily like Larry David and could attract tiny birds to himself and who was, all signs indicated, a kind of giant bird himself, and also a prophet. This was in the year that a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton of all people, had become a worldwide sensation, and just after Kim Kardashian had possibly been robbed of her diamonds, except maybe she hadn’t — and, to top it all off, the shirtless President of what used to be the Soviet Union hired hackers to jimmy with the election. Also, the Bush family was voting for Clinton, and Britain was breaking up.
In the ensuing 90 minutes, the candidates were shouted down by a scion of the Vanderbilt family who happened to look like the non-evil version of Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana, who had mandated abortion funerals in the Hoosier State, along with ABC’s Senior Foreign Affairs correspondent, previously best known for her phone going off in a press conference. The ringtone in question was Chamillionaire’s “Ridin.”
All of these people were the most prominent individuals in the United States at the time this happened.
This was before the candidates for the most powerful office on Earth even started fighting.
THE SECOND TIME AROUND
The Second Presidential Debate was the most brutal debate I’ve ever seen where both fighters were sober. Allegedly. Trump, fresh from the worst weekend a GOP candidate has had since Lincoln, went into the debate determined to make up for his breakdown in the first debate. And just like last time, Hillary merely had to lean back and watch the collapse. Surprisingly, both candidates were on point, as were the moderators. The town hall format suited them well. This is unsurprising, as most of a campaign is fairly close to the town hall format: candidates holding forth on soapboxes and in various warehouses full of attentive middle-American voters waiting to hear about where the hell Aleppo is and who we’re bombing today.
In truth, the town hall format complements everyone, not just the Presidents-to-be. It makes the candidates look good, because it assures us they have an un-Rooseveltian full range of motion below the waistline. It makes us, the American populace, look swell because we get to participate in the multi-level marketing scheme of modern campaigns by asking questions like “How is baby formed?” and “How do I get girls to like me in wartime?” and “How ‘bout them Cowboys?” And finally, it makes our national news media look impressive because they are not having to outfox the twelfth-dimensional chessmaster mind of Ryan Lochte, and can relax a little by telling multimillionaire candidates about timers and how they work.
Like a trip down a tunnel of fever dreams, the 2016 election has become the only show in American history better than The Wire and The Simpsons put together. Most pundits agreed that the debate was wild, getting wilder. Trump declared that Hillary had hate in her heart. The former Secretary spent most of her time smiling. Trump called her The Devil. She kept laughing.
It wasn’t that Hillary had suddenly figured out the Kennedy equation for winning over people, although she had brought her A-game. It was more her weird symbiosis with Trump, and that she knew she had won by any reasonable metric. I imagine Hillary’s wonks and quants tell her on a daily basis what careful reading has told me: That Trump has no get out the vote, no internal organization, that the party is in open rebellion against him, that all his feedback mechanisms have done burst, that he’s all but feuding with his running mate, Race Bannon. Indeed, Hillary knows what anyone who cares to look knows: The polls show him down in the important states. He is battling in Ohio. He is battling in NC. He is battling everywhere. PA is lost. FL is up in the air, probably against him.
And yet Trump continued. The media were shocked. Why? Have they not been watching the same campaign? Do they not know Trump people? I have several friends who support him. This is the battle that they want. That’s the point of his campaign. The war was always going to come to this. Embarrassing Trump footage was always going to come to light, Trump was going to play the Juanita Broadrrick allegation card against Bill, and Hillary would do what she’s done since Debate 1: Allow him to look loopy in front of millions of people. I was shocked and amazed, but not surprised. Anyone who was amazed that the debate took this turn was either not paying attention, or re-watching the 1992 or 2008 debate tapes instead of paying attention to the ground game. We had a year to get ready for this.
THE MAGIC BEGINS
Trump took his turn on the stage when all of the pundits were jabbering about his bestial nature, and it was fascinating to watch. He took charge of a microphone and after checking it worked, never looked back. After he was done figuring out how it made his hands look — human, I guess — he began to ponder how it might carry the very important message of Hillary’s upcoming federal prosecution, which would place the U.S. at the level of baby democracies. He put his foot in his mouth and continued to shove it down the same hole, as if this had been the plan since his nativity, to make himself utterly repulsive to anyone who had ever glanced him in the eye or come within striking distance.
In The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey’s character Verbal, speaking of the crime-wizard Soze, mutters: “Then he showed these men of will what will really was.” Trump showed a shameless nation what shame actually was. Not two days after he referred to performing a lewd and criminal anatomical impossibility, Trump leaned in. And while I’m sure we all want to relive every magical moment of that enchanted evening for the second time, I think we ought to visit the question of what in the hell is wrong with him.
The only reason Trump is listened to at all in the political sphere is because he has support. He didn’t buy his way here – he’s not that rich. And he didn’t cheat his way in – he’s not that clever. He didn’t get here by connecting with other people – he’s a narcissist. He got here because people bought what he is selling.
What Trump is selling is simple: The system is rigged and does not work for many people. Democratic politicians and Republican politicians talk big and do absolutely nothing. Look at what Obama didn’t do. Look at what they did to Bernie. He blows the dog whistle, like a lot right-wing pols do. Fear and resentment manifests as hatred of the Other.
Trump doesn’t mutter the words “The neoliberal order is a crisis of late-stage capitalism which must be dealt with. When liberalism abandoned workers and the fight for economic justice, it became a cultural affection, bourgeois back-patting for the college-educated.” He doesn’t think about it that hard; he doesn’t have to. There’s an ancient Greek saying: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The philosopher Berlin suggests hedgehogs look at the world through one big idea; foxes don’t have one big idea, but draw from a bunch of experiences. Trump is a rare hedgehog: he understands one big thing — the audience — and misunderstands everything else big and small: decency, consent, morality, taste, policy, Aleppo, his own daughter, climate change, the world. Reading the audience told him that our current order was dying, soon to be dead, and he went with that until he found lines that worked. He had nothing else, but up until now, nothing else was required. There will never be a time Trump’s followers can be shamed into not voting for him. If he had shame, they wouldn’t like him.
Barring a nuclear strike, Trump will almost certainly lose on Nov. 8. He was in trouble before the Tapening. Once that happened, the basement went full-out Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Down the elevator he goes. For the thirty to forty percent who have always clustered around him, he will always be the Godfather of LOL, but to the rest of the world he was, and is, a weird creeplord from Queens.
Trump surrogates and subordinates are claiming he has a lead. Lots of people on Twitter think he’s still a contender. Me? I could believe a thousand angels could dance on the head of a pin. I could believe that Ralph Dale Earnhardt Sr. faked his death and is alive and well and living in Paris. But if you tell me Latinos in swing states and college-educated white women in Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus will vote for Trump after last weekend, I suggest to take your talents to South Beach, ‘cause I ain’t buying.
WHY THIS DEBATE MAKES YOU FEEL THIS WAY
I enjoyed this debate, as I’ve enjoyed this entire election. There is a reason for this.
As far back as I can remember, national level politics at the domestic level was an affair where politicians squabbled about ridiculous, inane fritters like the V-Chip and the fake troubles of Social Security. The only issues allowed in our political dialogue were ideas that Beltway schmucks cared about: Slightly left-tilting fantasies covering up right-of-center economic policy. This went on for years. Republicans whined about gays being allowed to roam free in daylight and Democrats made plans to sell out the Great Society piece by piece, and that was it, world without end, amen. All matters were settled. It was aggravating. It made you feel the way an immobilized patient must feel watching his doctors talk about the neat steel rod they’re about to slide into his back.
If your idea of politics is Kennedy and Nixon debating, maybe all of this postmodern back-and-forth seems repulsive. But I wasn’t around back then: I knew people in my hometown who earnestly thought the Clintons had killed Vince Foster. So none of this seems shocking to me. The so-called decency of consensus politics back then wasn’t really enlightened or equitable: If Tim Russert didn’t care about it, it didn’t get mentioned. By anybody. The smooth, uneven surface of the politics of the Eighties and Nineties was unbroken, up until about the early oughts.
But the Iraq War vote and the Housing Bubble and thousand other cuts revealed what a circle of frauds every single national politician was, and most of our pundits, too. And that’s what allowed this to happen. Everything that was in the foreground of the Second Presidential Debate — the exchanges, the ideas, the pantsuits, Mr. Kenneth Bone — is drowned out by the resounding sound in stereo of “this is the weirdest political moment of our lives.” The anonymous saying about living in interesting times? This is what interesting times feel like.
Have you ever met anyone famous, maybe had a conversation with them? You get used to it once you’ve done it once or twice, but the first time it happens, the mood is surreal. On the surface you’re having a normal human conversation, but on another level there’s a klaxon in your brain that never shuts off, reminding you constantly that the person you’re talking to is famous. That fact is always there, like the North Star; it’s inescapable.
That is what it is like, to try and talk about this debate. There is no way around it. These debates, and this year, are unreal. It is the central fact which Damocleses over the whole political theater of 2015 and 2016. And what is remarkable is this: Everyone knows it. Paul Ryan knows it, the Kennedy family knows it; ISIS and Assad know it, the nation-state of Ohio knows it, the Ainu in Japan know it, and the Clintons know it. Paula Jones, sitting in the audience, knows it; and me and my family know it, and Ivanka and Nic Cage and all the dead Presidents spinning down there forever in the dark mustiness of their graves know it. We’re a knowledgeable nation. There are fictional characters in parallel worlds who are waking up right now in their beds in Westeros and Springfield and Metropolis with headaches, all of them saying “What in the groovy hell is happening on Earth-Prime?”
It is so unprecedented and unusual that the prospect of a former first lady becoming America’s first female President is almost the most boring factor of this entire process. Most off-putting of all, there is weirder yet to come. Lighting the Nation’s Christmas Tree in December 1964, Lyndon Johnson said “These are the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” Well, these are the oddest times since the Fall of Rome, and this was the oddest debate in American history, until Oct. 19. Strange days, indeed.