The way I see it, last night’s debate gave us a pretty clear choice. On one side of the stage, a person who was prepared and briefed, who understood the issues and had a point of view of how to proceed. On the other, we saw a bombastic, misogynistic, xenophobic racist who seems to revel in his lack of knowledge and preparedness. You know, the same two we’ve seen over the course of this entire election, except now they were face to face and lots of people who have otherwise been distracting themselves with The Voice started to pay attention.
There have been a metric shitton of pieces written about the debate and a healthy percentage of them have asked the question as to whether or not last night’s performance will make any difference in the election’s outcome. Yes, the notion that she won the debate is nearly universal. Yes, all his warts and shortcomings were apparent. Yes, she was her usually driven and hyper-prepared self. But will it matter to people who have already made up their minds?
The other day, I saw a meme on Facebook comparing Trump to Hitler. I think that’s ridiculous inasmuch as it seems very unfair to Hitler. Adolf had a plan. He had a consistent (and very much fucked up) point of view. He knew what the problem was, he knew how he thought it should be fixed, and he drove towards that every single day, even from prison. Everything he did, he did towards a singular purpose: Take over Germany, throw out or destroy the Jews and other sub-races, restore the German people to their rightful place atop the world. Ambitious and horrible, but executed with precision.
Trump has no plan. He just says things. Sometimes, he says things that are clearly contradictory to things he’s said in the past. Usually they’re at odds with facts and reality. Words stream from his mouth in a sometimes random assortment. When he does make a point, it’s often counter to what the very voters he supposedly represents think is important. He calls into question obligations to our allies in Southeast Asia and Europe and, despite his endorsement by the NRA, is the only candidate who’s called for police to randomly stop people and confiscate their firearms (just to name a few). But he just pushes on like a hog rooting for a truffle.
Hitler’s supporters looked to him to amplify and hone their hateful rhetoric. Trumps supports are often looking past his gaffs and pronouncements and decide to support him anyway.
When it became clear Trump was going to obtain the Republican nomination, I thought it was good news for Democrats and the country. Trump didn’t represent any of the ideals or values of the Republican voters I knew well. I assumed they’d either not vote in the race or vote for someone else (write-in a name or go for Gary Johnson or something). But I was wrong. What I’ve seen instead is a gradual and inexorable alignment towards him. To a person, they seem prepared to exercise their franchise in support of someone so obviously unfit for the job. Someone so obviously out of step with their own viewpoint on the world. All because, presumably, he’s not her.
There’s another large group of voters who seem to view Trump as a thumb in the eye of everyone else who cares about who inhabits the White House. Perhaps they’ve never cared about the presidency because they never saw how it affected their lives, but now they have a champion willing to tell everyone to fuck off. When Trump said he could literally shoot someone on the street and not lose any votes, he demonstrated a keen understanding of his appeal. When these people vote for him, they’re consciously choosing the side of the schoolyard bully over the four-eyes know-it-alls who look down upon them.
So no, Trump is no Hitler. Not even close. But his voters might be like those who brought Hitler to power. The people whose blood pumps harder when they hear his hateful rhetoric. Who feel they cannot get ahead if anyone else is. Along with the ones who have tricked themselves into believing literally anyone is better than Clinton and, besides, how much trouble can he get in with the courts and Congress and 200-some years of established tradition standing in his way? The unthinkable has become normal. The walking internet comment section has become mainstream. And people like it. At least something just under half of them do.
So will the debate end up mattering? That he was awful and bombastic and clearly out of his league? None of these things has been in question up to now. Nothing happened last night but a confirmation of all that came before. For me, it comes down to a test of the basic goodness and fairness of the American people. Will they come back to earth? Regain their sense? Realize we’re playing with the kind of fire we’ve never come close to before? Or will they turn their backs on all that and choose the ignorant bully because he’s the ignorant bully? Will they demonize Hillary so perfectly as to assuage their guilt for voting for an ignorant fool?
This is our test. I think we’ll pass. But I don’t know for sure.