Has it been only five paranoid, divisive, dishonest, self-pitying, conspiracy-filled, societally degrading days of Donald Trump since Wednesday night's debate? Hard to believe. For Trump has made the last two weeks feel like an excruciating journey to a country we should never be.
The comprehensive damage he has inflicted on our national spirit is unprecedented in a presidential candidate. As sordid as it is, his behavior toward women is but a symptom of his pervasive contempt for the traditions of decency and civility which bind us together as Americans. Still, it is well to start there, for his disdain for women epitomizes his disdain for everyone and everything but Donald Trump himself.
Despite his mendacious whining, through videotape and interviews Trump painted his own self-portrait as an emotionally stunted serial groper who forced himself on women, intruded on naked beauty contestants, and saw attractive females as prey. As of this writing, eleven women have now come forward to allege that Trump is precisely the tongue-thrusting, genital-grabbing Peeping Tom he boasted of being.
Their accounts are detailed, credible and, in several cases, conform to what they told friends at the time. Trump's response is pathological: everyone involved is a liar -- not only all eleven women but Trump himself. This is worse than unbelievable, though it is surely that. Our would-be president is claiming that, when describing himself as a sexual predator, he was lying to enhance his image.
Equally demented, he has threatened the women with lawsuits and intimated at rallies that two of his accusers are too plain for his predation. Of one, he said, "she would not be my first choice, that I can tell you"; after calling the other a "liar", he added, "Check out her Facebook, you'll understand." To this he added a sexist jibe at Hillary Clinton: "And when she walked in front of me [at the second presidential debate], believe me I wasn't impressed."
Finally, having humiliated his wife, he pushed her in front of the cameras to recite his storyline: his boasts were false; his victims are lying; the media is "so dishonest and so mean." A phrase better used to describe her husband.
Another woman, Michelle Obama, spoke for countless others. Trump's self-description, she said, "has shaken me to my core... It's like the sick, sinking feeling you get when you're walking down the street minding your own business and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body, or when you see that guy at work that stands a little too close, stares a little too long so you feel uncomfortable in your own skin."
Her candor and eloquence reminded us of how unthinkable it would be to replace the Obamas with the Trumps. And, perhaps, made it a little easier for women to cope with, and speak of, their experiences with men like Donald Trump.
But our national experience with Trump is hardly over, and it is coming at a very high price. Unhinged by adversity -- a disqualifier in itself -- he is turning the death throes of his campaign into a scorched earth attack on our civil society.
Instead of reaching out for voters, he is rallying his base with lies, vitriol and paranoia. In Trump's account he, and they, are victims -- of the government, the media, minorities, a crooked electoral system, a corrupt international conspiracy to advance Clinton, an American elite which views his followers with contempt, any woman who accuses him of sexual assault, and every American who does not see the world as they do. All critics of Trump are lying to them; they can believe no one but Trump. He is no longer advancing an argument; he is shredding our social fabric.
Every fusillade of lies is like a Rorschach test, meant to separate his true believers from the rest of us. The New York Times -- having reported on his accusers -- is a cog in the conspiracy to elect Clinton run by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. In his telling, this evil cabal will stop at nothing:
Anyone who challenges their control is deemed a sexist, a racist, a xenophobic and morally deformed. They will attack you, they will slander you, they will seek to destroy your career and your family, they will seek to destroy everything about you, including reputation. They will lie, lie, lie, and then again they will do worse than that, they will do whatever is necessary. The Clintons are criminals, remember that. They're criminals.
There is no lie so misshapen that Trump will not utter it. The most corrosive of these is his attack on our electoral process.
The vapor trail of his incitements is like a field guide to mass insanity: Hillary Clinton should take a drug test before the final debate. Clinton "meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich those global financial powers..." -- a gamy resurrection of anti-Semitic tropes. His accusers have made up stories fed them by the conspirators. The conspiracy presumably includes the CIA: despite the fact that intelligence professionals briefed him on Russian hacking, Trump says "maybe there is no hacking."
But there is no lie so misshapen that Trump will not utter it. The most corrosive of these is his attack on our electoral process.
In-person voting fraud is so rare as to be statistically nonexistent. Numerous studies have shown this. As the Washington Post reports: "One of the most comprehensive investigations into voter impersonation found found only 31 possibly fraudulent ballots out of over out of over 1 billion votes between 2000-2014."'
Despite this, Trump and his campaign inflame his followers by repeating a series of enormous lies:
Trump asserts: "Of course there is large-scale voter fraud happening on or before election day. Why do Republican leaders deny what is going on?" His campaign claims without evidence that there are "recent voting irregularities across the country from Pennsylvania to Colorado and an increase in unlawful voting by illegal immigrants." Trump again, throwing in a dollop of racism: "I hear too many stories about Pennsylvania. Certain areas. We can't lose an election because you know what I'm talking about. So... go check out areas."
More Trump: "People that have died 10 years ago are still voting. Illegal immigrants are voting. So many cities are corrupt, and voter fraud is very, very common." Newt Gingrich: "To suggest that... you don't have theft in Philadelphia is to deny reality." Trump yet again: "It's one big fix. This whole election is being rigged." All this in the service of his insinuation that hordes of minority voters will commit election fraud.
Thus he focuses his fictions on cities with substantial African-American populations. One day before the debate, he proclaimed: "Voter fraud is all too common, and then they criticize us for saying that. But take a look at Philadelphia, what's been going on, take a look at Chicago, take a look at St. Louis. Take a look at some of these cities, where you see things happening that are horrendous."
This is grotesque. The Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-check site PolitiFact rates Trump's lying as "Pants on Fire": "More people are struck by lightning or attacked by sharks than are accused of voter fraud." Ohio's Secretary of State, a Trump supporter, says flatly: "Any time your comments draw into question the legitimacy of the elections process, they cross the line. Particularly if you can't back it up with evidence."
Trump does not even try. But his naked lies have made his followers believe that voter fraud is rampant -- as do, polls show, a majority of Republicans. When Trump loses, millions of Americans will believe that he was cheated out of victory. This is exactly what he intends: to de-legitimize Hillary Clinton as president -- as he once tried to do, through the birther movement, to Barack Obama. But this time not before, quite possibly, inciting race-based intimidation or even violence at the polls.
So where was the leadership of the Republican Party? In hiding, mostly. They no doubt fear Trump and his legions, to whom he described Paul Ryan as "weak and ineffective." So Ryan confined himself to a tepid statement expressing confidence in our electoral process; Mitch McConnell said nothing. So much for leadership -- or integrity.
But then Trump was piggy-backing on shabby falsehoods that the GOP concocted long ago. For it is Republicans, not minorities, who have tried to rig the vote -- by excluding minorities. How? By advancing bogus claims of voter fraud to justify voter ID laws calculated, as a Court of Appeals recently held, to target "African-Americans with almost surgical precision." Trump is not an aberration; he is the GOP's hideous offspring, turned back against them at the head of a peasant army of rebellious Republicans.
By and large, the party's erstwhile leaders are a pitiful sight. Willfully ignoring Trumps' character, they imagined that he could be tamed. Now they cower in the face of his excesses. The most recent, most pathetic, examples were the officeholders who abandoned Trump over his abuse of women, only to crawl back on board when the base howled in protest. Like the evangelical eunuch Mike Pence, they dare not speak for decency, or even for themselves.
Trump is not an aberration; he is the GOP's hideous offspring, turned back against them at the head of a peasant army of rebellious Republicans.
Barack Obama got this precisely right: Republicans are now caught in the "swamp of crazy that has been sold over and over and over and over again"; Trump is the nominee you get when your appeal is "based on lies, based on hoaxes." He should know. Some of their lies and hoaxes -- including Trump's -- were directed at America's first black president.
Now they are his vehicle for degrading our national life. In the Washington Post, Michael Gerson described his party's nominee and where he is taking us. Trump is "frighteningly unstable under pressure." He is "easily baited -- hyperbolic and vengeful." His advisors are "feeding his manias." He is "completely unmoored from restraining influences, and would be as president."
He is the champion of "crackpot conservatism -- an alt-right rage against a vast, scheming establishment that includes the liberal media, global financiers and a growing list of women making accusations of sexual assault." He "has no commitment to the American political system." He "is perfectly willing to delegitimize democratic institutions as a campaign tactic, squandering a civil inheritance he does not value." His "descent into ideological psychosis has tainted the reputation of all who were foolish enough to associate with him."
What else did the GOP expect from an obvious bully, narcissist, ignoramus, liar and cheat, a man for whom nothing -- and no one -- exists but himself. It created the fever swamp in which he has thrived. Now, day by day, he is degrading our political life and, by his example, our society. In the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, he has made America "define deviancy down" to accommodate his worst instincts -- and nourish ours.
So Wednesday's debate, moderated by the estimable Chris Wallace, represented a final reckoning. For Trump, it was one more chance to call Clinton sickly, incompetent and corrupt in front of a massive audience. But in return Trump would have to respond in real time to hard questions about real issues. In short, this debate was sanity's last shot.
Thanks to Wallace, sanity prevailed -- until, thanks to Trump, it didn't.
For a good while, Wallace's skillful questioning produced the miraculous, a debate involving Donald Trump which seemed almost normal. Issues materialized from nowhere: the Court, nuclear weapons, taxes, the economy, Syria, ISIS. While woefully uninformed, for a while Trump hit his right-wing talking points like a kid reciting from memory. One could not help but think that his mom, Kellyanne Conway, was beaming with pride.
Still, there was no missing the adult in the room. Issue upon issue Clinton was confident, crisp and comprehensive -- a president in waiting. At times, she dodged uncomfortable subjects like emails and her position on free trade. Nonetheless, with respect to substance she was clearly winning on points, the predictable outcome of a cage match between a policy wonk and an incurious dunce.
But Clinton was not content. Like the heroine of a political revenge movie she turned on her thuggish tormentor, sticking sardonic soundbites like witches shafts into his very thin skin, served with extra relish.
When she was helping black kids in South get better schooling, she reminded him, the government was suing Trump for racial discrimination. When he was building Trump Tower, this enemy of illegal aliens exploited undocumented workers. When he built his signature hotel in Las Vegas, this proponent of a trade war with China used Chinese steel. This wall-building enemy of NAFTA and exporting jobs shipped jobs to Mexico. This master of the universe constantly whines that everything -- even the Emmy awards -- is rigged against him.
When Clinton was involved in taking out bin Laden, Trump was hosting Celebrity Apprentice. When the Clinton Foundation was combating AIDS, the Trump Foundation "took money from other people and bought a six-foot portrait of Donald" -- a dart to which Clinton added, "I mean, who does that?" Under Clinton's plan to fortify Social Security, "my payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald's -- assuming he can't figure out how to get out of it."
At this, the erstwhile ubermensch -- the very same guy who called her criminal, incompetent, corrupt and a liar; the same guy who brought several women to the prior debate to highlight her husband's indiscretions -- snapped "such a nasty woman." Given that she had previously catalogued his alleged serial abuse of women, this rejoinder was, to put it mildly, ill-considered.
Trump had already elicited gasps from the audience by claiming: "Nobody has more respect for women than I do. Nobody." One could only share their amazement: By then he had labelled nine women's detailed accounts of sexual predation as lies "probably started by [Clinton] and her sleazy campaign"; denied the slighting comments about two of them immortalized on tape; asserted -- falsely -- that the women's accusations had been debunked; and claimed -- incredibly -- not to know anyone on a list of accusers which included women he had previously admitted knowing.
But given 90 minutes Trump can lie a lot. He lied about suggesting that Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia should have nuclear weapons. He claimed that the United States was inundated with ISIS operatives from Syria. He falsely asserted that "Hillary Clinton wants to double your taxes." Despite having been briefed by our intelligence agencies, he denied knowing about the Russian hacking of the DNC and the Clinton campaign.
So far, so squalid -- the numbing new normal to which Trump has reduced us. By this time, I was developing a certain fascination with the split screen. I have a novelist's sensibility, I'll admit. But the close-up of Trump struck me as a merciless psychic x-ray. With every look of anger and contempt, every moment of thin-lipped, squint-eyed fury, I imagined his gargoyle soul becoming graven on his face.
A flight of fancy, perhaps. But then he turned his pathology on America's civic traditions, political precedents and rules of presidential behavior
Citing Trump's claims of widespread voter fraud, Wallace asked whether he would accept the result of the election. Unlike any major candidate in our history, Trump refused to commit.
"What I've seen is so bad," he asserted, claiming that there were "millions of people that are registered to vote that shouldn't be registered to vote." He then blamed the media for stacking the election against him having, for good measure, charged that Clinton "should never have been allowed to run for the presidency based on what she did with emails and so many other things."
Reminding Trump with obvious incredulity that one of the "prides of this country is the peaceful transition of power," Wallace asked again, "Are you saying you're not prepared now to commit to that principle?" Dismissively, Trump replied, "What I'm saying is that I will tell you at the time. I'll keep you in suspense, O.K.?'
There it was. In a single moment, Trump had illuminated the depth and danger of his pathology -- a nihilistic contempt for everything that matters.
For values: Truth. Integrity. Principal. Decency. Civility. The rule of law.
For others: Women. Minorities. Muslims. The physically challenged. His fellow citizens. His own family. Anyone -- and anything.
Even his country.
Never before had a candidate challenged the legitimacy of a presidential election before it was held. As Michelle Obama said, Trump "is threatening the very idea of America itself."
So what happened next?
His base applauded. His party cowered. Ryan and McConnell remained silent. Pence contorted himself in support. In the wake of their cowardice, for the first time millions of Americans questioned the honesty of our electoral process. And our sense of decency and community, to which Trump has already done such grievous harm, diminished still more.
And Trump? "Hillary Clinton," he proclaimed the next day, "is the most dishonest person ever to run for president."