We saw it yet again after his final debate with Joe Biden on Thursday, as many greeted his less shouty performance as though it were not utterly appalling. Trump, we were told, was "disciplined," “recalibrated" and had “learned some lessons.”
Where does this desire to see in Trump something he is not come from? Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, that if he civilizes himself then the chaos of this time might dissipate. Perhaps it’s discomfort with the fact that in the Trump era, even the slightest commitment to the truth makes the traditional “both sides” presentation of the news impossible. Perhaps it’s simply the desire for the news to be new; “Trump still a horror” is not new, but “Trump adopts new tone” is, even if it isn’t true.
But there is no new tone, and there is no new Trump. Let’s run down just some of what he did in the debate to earn praise for being so restrained and mature:
- Told almost too many lies to count
- Spouted preposterous conspiracy theories
- Attacked his opponent’s family
- Whined and complained for 90 minutes about everyone who supposedly treats him unfairly, from Democrats to the media to China to the IRS
- Mocked his opponent — complete with a silly voice — for telling voters that the debate was about them and the conditions of their lives
- Said for the umpteenth time about the pandemic that has killed 220,000 Americans and is currently exploding across much of the country, “We’re rounding the corner. It’s going away.”
- Claimed, as he has for five years, that he’s going to release his tax returns “as soon as we can”
- Attacked wind energy because it “kills all the birds”
- Said “I’m the least racist person in this room”
- Said Biden wants to knock down all our buildings so they can be replaced with “new buildings with little, tiny, small windows”
- Said that immigrants who appear for legal proceedings to determine whether they can stay in the country are only “those with the lowest IQ,” because anyone who obeys the law must be stupid
That was just part of it. If it were any other candidate, his party would be trying desperately to figure out whether it could replace him on the ticket, because someone so unhinged could only lead it to disaster. But because it’s Trump, everyone says, “Gee, he did pretty well!”
The phrase so often repeated in the early days of this administration — “This is not normal” — has faded away, an absurd understatement of our debased reality. “Normal” has no meaning in this era; it’s like saying “This isn’t the road to Flagstaff” when you’ve gotten so far off track that you just drove into the Arctic Ocean.
These last days of the campaign remind us of the ways Trump hacked our politics, the yawning gaps where his sense of propriety or morality should have been allowing him to locate and exploit the weak points in the system.
Fact-checking — which is both about correcting the record and about shaming those who would stretch the truth — loses meaning in the face of a president so shameless in his dishonesty. Warnings about dog whistles to racism fail when a politician throws away the whistle and shouts his bigotry to the rooftops. Calling out hypocrisy doesn’t harm someone who wants to convince us not that he isn’t corrupt but that everyone is as corrupt as he is.
Four years ago the Republican Party asked America: What if we gave you the worst? What if we offered you the most dishonest politician in U.S. history (if not in the history of the world)? What if he was literally a con artist, an obvious bigot, nakedly corrupt, utterly ignorant, and as petty and vindictive as a grade-school bully? What would you say to that?
Almost the entire GOP said, “Hell yeah! That’s exactly what we want.”
And they still do. Trump may have the approval of only 42 percent of the American public, but the fact that it’s more than 4 percent should make us fear for our future, even if he loses to Joe Biden in a rout.
That’s the unavoidable conclusion as this campaign winds down. If Trump loses, it would be cause not for joy or celebration or a renewal of hope, but simply a relief.
There’s one favor Trump could do the nation if that is the outcome: to depart with some modicum of dignity. But we all know he can’t. There is no “new tone” and no better Trump.
There is only the Trump we have seen and suffered through for four years. He is a creature of resentment and rage, and that’s how he will go whenever the time comes, with a tirade of bitterness about rigged votes, leaving behind him a cloud of poison we’ll be forced to breathe for years to come.