October 10, 2016

I promised I’d write 500 words per day, starting today. It’s just to get back in the habit of writing something (other than emails and tweets) every day. There are no other goals. I suspect I’ll publish some of these posts, while others will be relegated to the secret depths of my Medium drafts. But there’s no real audience for any of this. It’s just about getting back in the habit of writing.

In general, I’ll write about what’s top of mind for me on any given day. And today, there’s only one thing I’m really thinking about: the debate.

I’m conflicted. On one side, it seems clear at this point that, barring the unforeseen, Donald Trump is going to lose the election, which should literally help me sleep better. He may have halted the total collapse of his campaign by being somewhat more composed than a toddler would have been, but it certainly wasn’t the type of performance that will shake things up.

Contrary to some of my friends, who are depressed that Clinton “played it safe” and didn’t try to finish Trump’s campaign by baiting him into some sort of final and critical error, I think her strategy was probably the right one. Had Trump completely failed last night, down-ballot GOP candidates would have been able to concede the election and continue to distance themselves from him, essentially arguing that swing voters should split the ticket to prevent a complete Democratic takeover.

Because Trump didn’t completely fall down, however, GOPers are feeling the pressure to stick with him for the remainder of the race. It’s a lose-lose proposition, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, after the spectacular #TrumpTapes meltdown over the weekend, Clinton’s team didn’t deliberately pull back a little to keep him in the race so that Dems have a better chance of taking the House and the Senate.

So, that’s the good side. The bad side is that this debate — and in particular, Donald’s “quip” that he would jail Clinton if he becomes president — made crystal clear a fact that has been challenging my usual optimism throughout this election season: Donald Trump would probably be winning if he weren’t so personally unstable.

Put another way, I can now run the thought experiment where the American version of Vladimir Putin wins the election. In this scenario, someone who — unlike Trump — is perceived as confident, competent and stable by educated white voters, but who does the same overt dog-whistling to white nationalists and has the same authoritarian inclinations, comes to power. Then, over the years, this theoretical candidate uses the ever-expanding powers of the presidency to effectively end American democracy.

This person could use the exact same blueprint to exploit the media for free (and fact-free) publicity that Trump has. Although they’ve gotten better as the campaign has dragged on, I’m skeptical that the American media has learned its lessons about false equivalence and how to deal with an essentially fact-free campaign.

If the last two presidential cycles are any indication, despite lots of “soul-searching” on November 9, the GOP will do nothing to reform itself to be more inclusive ahead of the next election, setting the stage for another dangerous nominee. I mean, even after all of the outrageous sexism, racism, Islamophobia of the Trump campaign, the ranking member of the party can’t even bring himself to un-endorse an obvious albatross because he commands the attention of most of the party’s base.

And even if they do undertake some reforms, it may not matter. The base for this person will be ready to go with or without establishment approval. This theoretical tyrant will be able to use the media infrastructure that Trump will probably set up once the campaign ends to get a much faster start in the primary than Trump was able to.

The best we can probably hope for is a re-alignment that causes the “establishment” wing of the GOP to bolt and join forces with more centrist Democrats. If that group can keep progressives in the fold for a few cycles (no small order given Bernie’s performance this year), maybe demographic changes will finally make it impossible to win with an all-white coalition, even in an election split between left, right and center factions.

Even if that is the most likely scenario, it’s scary to even start to entertain the idea that we might be that close to authoritarianism and the end of the American experiment.

And it’s not like even getting there will be easy. Last night, by promising to persecute his political opponent if he wins, a candidate for President of the United States crossed a line that is usually reserved for third-world would-be dictators. Yet this morning the headlines are that that same candidate actually stemmed the damage to his campaign by not venturing even further into the abyss!

Undoing the damage caused to our political norms by that one statement alone will take years. That’s to say nothing of allowing extreme, dangerous and regressive views on everything from race to nuclear weapons to have a mainstream platform for the last year and a half. Maybe it was naivety, maybe it was youthful optimism, but that’s why, despite a pretty good debate result last night for a candidate I like and believe will be a great president, I’m more despondent today than yesterday.

Prove me wrong, please?