Maybe it’s over. Maybe all the polls showing massive, perhaps historic, leads for Hillary Clinton aren’t going to waver. Maybe abandonment by the Republican establishment really is insurmountable. Maybe Wednesday night’s final presidential debate is just another step in the inexorable death march of a campaign. Maybe now, with 20 days until the election, this is all finally finished.
So, why doesn’t it feel that way?
Donald Trump wants you to know that he’s doing this all for you. He capitalizes “American Voter” so there can be no mistake — this is how highly he values the sanctity of democratic choice. And he is doing, he says, what he has always done: He’s telling it like it is, dear and precious American Voters, and that means Donald Trump wants you to know you’re being poisoned. Your delicate mind, which he so badly wants to protect, is being filled with lies, just as the election itself is being rigged. Never mind that voter fraud is essentially a myth in this country; that the polls reflect nothing more than a boorish, divisive candidate who has nearly concluded a year and a half of dedicated alienation. Clinton, the Democratic Party, the FBI, the Department of Justice, and — boo, hiss — the media: The corruption comes from inside and out. We have nothing more, Trump concluded last week, than “the illusion of democracy.”
This week, his floundering campaign did something so transparent that it scarcely seemed possible: It put out feelers for a new TV network. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has reportedly sought investment to found a Trump channel, a 24-hour, moving, talking window into American homes.
“The truth is a beautiful weapon,” Trump wrote this month. So, too, are lies, mistrust, and conspiracies threaded in the pursuit of naked self-interest.
Trump has asked his supporters to volunteer at polling places, to serve as what he’s calling “observers.” You’re picturing them now and you’re cringing about the things that might happen, the headlines you will read three weeks from now. You’re imagining the people scared away from polling stations, the interviews with voters feeling so angry and betrayed that their eyes are welling up, the inevitable fistfights between grown adults, the toppled booths and crumpled sheets of I voted! stickers left in their wake. You’re thinking about the call you’ll have with your parents that day as it all unfolds. This is happening, you will say. It will happen. It’s happening.
That day will end. On Wednesday, November 9, the sun will rise. Hillary Clinton, probably, will have a new title that ends in -elect; Barack Obama will slip into the background; cabinet appointments will arrive; thoughts will turn to January, when, perhaps, it might actually be cold.
And Trump — he will hiss. He will spit. He will mount a stage — perhaps several; why stick to the conceding rule book when concession was never the goal? He will tell his followers what they want to hear: that they were robbed, and that democracy in the United States is crumbling before their eyes. That they have been wronged, and that they have every right to be furious. And then Trump will execute his plan, rolling his whole family — we know so many different Trumps, now — into the next television vessel.
He will get back to his businesses, his ties and his wine and his golf courses. He will continue to be rich. He will still be famous. He will do everything he did before, just even more grandiosely. In four years, he will not run again, but he will make a show of deciding not to, and he — his name, his red hat — will remain one of that election cycle’s biggest stories. For the rest of his life, whenever he wants, he will be able to call up a television network and drop a stick of dynamite on any issue he likes. He will not need the occasion of a presidential debate to do it. After Wednesday, Donald Trump will never be moderated again.
And the rest of us — the American Voters — what will we do? Be angry. Doubt. Maybe no matter what happens Wednesday night, Trump’s campaign is doomed to lose. But maybe we’re only beginning to see the damage he’s inflicted.