It’s going to get worse. To that extent, the fundamental dynamic of this election cycle remains unchanged. If Tuesday was roadkill, Wednesday is roadkill in the rain — that’s the process now. When was the last time that “three weeks ago” didn’t seem like a time of almost hilarious innocence? Oh, for the meadows of three weeks ago, when the Republican nominee for president was only a racist, authoritarian carnival barker and not literally a confessed sexual predator! Will we ever know such simple days again?
It’s going to get so much worse. Last week, the tape dropped in which Donald Trump ... but I’m not sure what verb to use here. I’m picturing one of those beef-ooze tubes in which smooshed-together cow sludge gets farted out of a little Play-Doh nozzle to make Whopper patties, but if the nozzle were really sensitive about its hair. So: last week the tape dropped in which Donald Trump nozzle-farted some boasts to a minor member of the Bush dynasty about how being the male celebrity host of a mid-shelf capitalist-kitsch reality show meant he could be pretty chill about respecting women’s rights to their own bodies. Hey, it’s worked for Republican policymakers for years!
Now women are coming forward to accuse Trump of sexual assault — 11 as of last night. Slate has a roundup of allegations, which range from extremely creepy to actually sick. (The 46-year-old Trump’s response to meeting a 10-year-old girl in 1992? “I’m going to be dating her in 10 years.”) A woman who sat beside him on a plane alleges that he lifted the armrest and, as the New York Times put it, “grabbed her breasts and tried to put his hand up her skirt.” A People magazine writer who visited him at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida alleges that he pushed her against the wall and forced his tongue down her throat. A group of Miss Teen USA contestants allege that he walked in on them while they were changing at a pageant. Some of them were 15.
Donald Trump is the nominee of a major party for the presidency of the United States.
It’s going to get worse, and uglier, and more scary, and more infuriating. There will be more accusations, and many of them will be credible, and the parade of senior Republican leaders currently half-fleeing Trump will maybe work up the moral courage to three-quarters flee, because Abraham Lincoln did not die in vain. (Trump would have responded to “we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow this ground” by tweeting that we could napalm it.) Tens of millions of people still think that Trump should lead the nation. Tens of millions of people will vote for him. None of this will feel good. And because the groundswell of reaction Trump has been riding won’t subside just because Hillary Clinton is president, it’s hard to say when the bad feeling will stop.
You could argue that politics isn’t about feelings, I guess. But the feelings that Trump has helped to sour and turn poisonous — faith in common purpose, commitment to a shared ideal of justice, reasonable trust that the nuclear codes aren’t in the hands of a man who thinks a breath mint is consent — are some of the same ones on which the social fabric is based.
How do you feel about the social fabric these days? Sometimes I think it’s holding, more or less, because Trump is at least going to lose the election; the process, which is designed precisely to destroy someone like him before he can seize power, has done its job and thrown him off the skyscraper, even if he managed to rip out fistfuls of wiring on the way down. Other times I think about all the police departments that are now essentially practicing tank warfare, and I wonder if you can always recognize the moment when the fabric starts failing to hold.
If there’s a crowning irony in the story of Donald Trump’s quest for high office, it’s that the failure of moral imagination he abetted and exploited during his rise is also what destroyed him. For years, in ways large and small, he has helped to construct an understanding of the world in which the reality of other people mattered less than his own drive to objectify them. That was the message of the self-parodic brand of chalk-stripe capitalism he represented in the 1980s; that was the message of his reality show (along with many others); that was the message of his entire presidential campaign.
Trump rose to near-power by modeling a fantasy that authorized him to act like the center of the universe, whether by eating the most luxurious pork chop or by regarding other people as subservient characters or by disregarding inconvenient facts or by reducing people of color to the status of a dehumanized mass threat. He did all that, then got taken down by one of the key objectifying tools of that fantasy regime — that classic reality-TV plot-tangler, the secret recording, the fuzzy audio track that exposes the villain’s true nature.
The world can destroy you in a million different ways. Because we are selfish and because our experience is small, most of us, at any given moment, are conscious of only a few of them. Our own problems seem vivid and tragic, but other people’s problems seem a little blurry, even when we’re trying to understand them. If you have never gone hungry, starvation is bound to look vague; if you’ve never been denied something you deserve because of how you look, or been attacked because someone larger than you felt entitled to your body, or felt alone and crazy for no reason, or been cheated, or been sick, then each of these sources of suffering probably feels less urgent than whatever specific adversity you have experienced. It’s human nature. Your heartbreak feels bigger than someone else’s war.
The proper response to this state of things, I think, is humility, along with a certain kind of trust in the face of other people’s suffering: to try to believe what other people say about what they’re going through, and to take it to heart. The basic gesture of moral imagination is, after all, to put yourself in someone else’s place. And to do that is what Donald Trump’s entire career has been set against. The motto of his campaign — and really his whole life — could be: Do not sympathize. Trump moves in a kind of vortex of anti-empathy that warps everything around him and that eventually makes everyone culpable, even his opponents. Even us.
Why, in the end, did we need a tape? Plenty of reports of Trump’s alleged crimes predate the recording, but it was only after it surfaced that they became catastrophic for his campaign. Before the tape, the reality of Trump’s conduct — and, to many of us, the humanity of his victims — seemed hazy, because that is how the Trumpian universe works. In a world of anti-empathy, other people’s suffering needs a tape to make it real. But if we need a tape to be outraged, we’re already awfully far advanced in our own sort of Trumpian logic. The tape doesn’t work by helping us empathize with Trump’s victims, after all; it works by embarrassing and exposing Trump himself. It works by turning him into a reality-show villain, and in that sense, the humiliation it inflicts on Trump may be as damaging to him as the evil it reveals. Trump’s persona is that of the ultimate objectifier. The tape does what more than a year of campaign coverage hasn’t managed to achieve: It turns him into an object.
The tape may be the thing that saves us from a Trump presidency, so it’s hard to get too dejected about this. But it’s worth pausing to note where we are. We shouldn’t have needed a tape, and in a better world, we wouldn’t have. But we live in Trump’s world, where I’m just glad it exists.