IN A normal political year, the presidential election might have ended at the electrifying moment that Khizr Khan, addressing the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, pulled a copy of the Constitution from his jacket pocket and challenged the Republican nominee.
“Donald Trump, you are asking Americans to trust you with our future,” said Mr. Khan, whose son Humayun Khan, a U.S. Army captain and a proud Muslim American, was killed while protecting his men in Iraq in 2004. “Let me ask you: Have you even read the U.S. Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy. In this document, look for the words ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of law.’ ”
But in this unusual year, it may not be disqualifying that Mr. Trump has disparaged Muslims, Mexicans and so many others. It may not be disqualifying that he has little knowledge of the Constitution or regard for the principles embodied in it. Two-thirds of the electorate, according to polls, believe the nation is headed in the wrong direction, and many of them may find Mr. Trump to be a suitable messenger of their discontent.
In response to Mr. Trump’s bombast and his promise of radical but heedless change, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton offered a vision of steady, incremental progress toward goals that matter to most Americans. She chose as running mate a politician, Virginia Sen. Timothy M. Kaine, who embodies that pragmatic promise: His career of public service has combined a commitment to liberal values with an openness to bipartisan compromise. Ms. Clinton acknowledged deep-seated problems troubling many Americans — inequality and slowing social mobility, gridlock in Washington, national security threats — but her answer to them is neither the “political revolution” touted by her primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), nor the nihilism of Mr. Trump.
Her campaign is betting that Americans instead will buy into her alternative offer of competence and dedication to the task of “step-by-step, year-by-year” change. But what if the wrong-track polls reflect not just anger and frustration but also deep cynicism about the possibility of any change? If that’s the case, detailed policy proposals and testimonials to Ms. Clinton’s experience and doggedness will just bounce off many voters. The more outlandish Mr. Trump becomes — beseeching unfriendly powers to hack into American emails, for example — the more he will appeal. Hearing repeatedly from Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders alike that the system is “rigged,” voters may conclude it might as well be blown up.
The risk to the nation and the world can be glimpsed in the damage already done. One political party has been reduced to policy incoherence and moral surrender, as its standard-bearer rejects its longtime tenets and its other leaders — such as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) — try vainly to endorse their candidate without being tainted by his racism and flirtation with anti-American dictators. Both parties have abandoned any pretense of addressing the nation’s long-term fiscal problems. Both have abandoned the postwar consensus for free and fair trade — a consensus that helped lift hundreds of millions of people around the world out of poverty. And allied leaders and their populations are questioning as never before whether the United States can be relied upon. They have good reason to wonder.