Let me conduct an informal poll here, one of those theoretical what-if election questions:
If you could choose to be placed in a safe, painless, medically induced coma between now and Election Day, would you do so?
At the risk of violating pollster neutrality by volunteering a personal response: yes, hell yes, and where do I sign?
The part of this interminable presidential campaign – the unhinged part we keep charitably heralding as “unprecedented” and “historic” – has begun to pall. Even train wrecks, car crashes and mass decapitations have a dulling effect if they go on too long.
A point is reached – I believe they have conducted experiments on rats to prove this – at which the nervous system is too exhausted to absorb fresh shocks. The initial titillating adrenaline rush of exposure to destabilizing stimuli is lost; only the dull aftermath of disorientation and depression remains.
Some of us may have finally reached this post-traumatic state last week. That was when the resurrection of GOP presidential nominee (I will never get used to saying that) Donald Trump’s grotesque 2005 bus tape preening about the joy of being rich and powerful enough to grope even the least willing women hit the news cycle like a hurtling asteroid.
Others may have held out until Sunday, when the once stiff, formal ritual of presidential debate deteriorated into what was excitedly anticipated as a vulgar cage-match showdown over Trump, Bill Clinton and male horndoggery in general. It delivered as promised and was followed by a juvenile insult-a-thon that should have been at least entertaining, but wasn’t.
The fact that the pious pundit-choir chorus has ruled that Trump “rallied his base” in the second debate underscores the disconcerting extent to which we are grading this lunacy on the bell curve. We keep covering Donald Trump as if he were an ordinary candidate, and Hillary Clinton, by default, as if she were an ordinary, analog opponent.
In our defense, we don’t really have a template on what else to do.
On Sunday night, the ever-blustering Trump called Clinton “devil,” “liar,” a criminal, an enabler of rapists and terrorists, a stooge of the Iranians, a craven shill for rich donors, Not Abraham Lincoln, the original racist Birther Crank, and – simultaneously! – an ineffectual do-nothing who was somehow the single most influential proponent of the Iraq War.
Clinton’s counter-punches – that he’s unfit, abuses women, doesn’t pay taxes like the rest of us and so forth – seemed awfully colorless by comparison. Insult-wise, it just seemed like a mismatch.
For the sake of historical context, I'll point out that in the presidential election of 1876, heretofore the ugliest in U.S. history, supporters of Rutherford B. Hayes called opponent Samuel Tilden a syphilitic drunk. Hayes did not say it to Tilden’s face in a public forum, as far as the record tells us.
Clinton, whose strategy for the next month appears to be to maintain a perpetual expression of long-suffering exasperation, got in a few digs herself. But they simply did not rise (or descend) to the level of Trump’s flailing, sputtering accusations. Through the bizarre new lens of Trump-tinged campaigning, she now comes off as dull because she doesn’t stomp and fume and go berserk.
There was a moment when I wanted her to let him have it in kind, to point out – oh, so reasonably – that “Donald, you are so alarmingly ill-informed about world affairs that you would get us blown into nuclear smithereens inside of a month,” or “Donald, you are the living embodiment of the tenet that vermin thrive on chaos and filth,” or “Donald, Vladimir Putin could turn you into a squeaking little hamster and carry you around is his pants pocket.”
If she had done so, the campaign really would have gone into that “dark new place” that everybody keeps talking about. But – flawed candidate though she is – she understands what debates are for, how campaigns are traditionally conducted, how democracy functions, what presidents do and how they’re supposed to behave. So she can’t.
Meanwhile, the Craziest Major Party Candidate in U.S. History blusters and capers and sputters disjointed sentence fragments about how our nation is a post-apocalyptic Third World hellscape where every institution, icon and achievement is a “disaster.” He gets away with it because there’s really not a mechanism in our political system to address lunatic invective on such a breathtaking scale.
So we get another month of this, four more torturous weeks of disorienting electric shocks, of weary disbelief, of wondering how, for the love of Pete, did it come to this?
Y'all, I’m tired of this funhouse ride. I really do wish I could sleep through the rest of it.
The writer is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News.