As the presidential election sinks ever-deeper into a toxic Trumpian sewer, much focus has fallen on what it all means for the Republican Party. Will Paul Ryan and other leading Republicans who have endorsed Trump ever truly denounce him? Will more of those who have already repudiated the party's nominee reverse course to re-embrace him after facing the furies of his most fervent fans? How will the party recover from what looks likely to be a catastrophic defeat in which it loses significant ground with Latinos, college-educated voters, and with women of every race, creed, color, region, and educational level?
Those are all important questions. But this is the most important question of all: How will America deal with the appalling political, social, and cultural consequences of Trump's nauseating campaign for president?
This isn't something that can be addressed and fixed by the kind of post-campaign autopsy that Republicans are fond of. The sad and sobering truth is that it might not even be something that can be fixed at all.
Tearing down is always easier than building up. Each of us is born into a world in which certain norms, habits, institutions, and traditions prevail and are to a considerable extent taken for granted. They are the (often unspoken) rules that we all follow. Why do we do so? Often for no consciously articulated reason (though often a very good reason can be adduced if we try). Norms, habits, institutions, and traditions are given, received from the past. Abiding by them allows us to get on with our business, to pursue our goals, argue about our common lives, and decide how we should live as a political community.
Until 16 months ago, for example, no major party candidate for president in the modern era had launched a campaign by describing the members of an entire ethnic group as rapists. Now it's happened, making the next time much less shocking. It's not yet exactly normal (note the root of the word: norm). But there is precedent. It's happened once, so it can happen again.
In this way, Trump's campaign has been radical, quite literally, from Day 1. By now we're so used to the candidate shredding our collective norms and degrading our collective life that we've come to expect it. "What's the latest Trump news?" How many of you have asked that over the past year after a few hours away from the computer or TV? What the question really means is: What norm has the Republican candidate torn up and debased this time?
It's happened so many times, it's hard to keep them all straight. Questioning the legitimacy of the nation's first African American president. Ridiculing a former prisoner of war and GOP presidential nominee for allowing himself to be captured by the North Vietnamese. Mocking a disabled reporter. Describing women as dogs and pigs. Insinuating in a televised debate that a moderator's tough question was motivated by menstrual hormones. Bragging in a televised debate about the size of his penis. Bowing out of a debate and organizing an alternative event to compete with it. Accusing an opponent's father of involvement with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Making fun of the appearance of that same candidate's wife. Lashing out repeatedly at journalists at large public rallies. Promising to throw his general-election opponent in jail upon becoming president.
Did I leave out your favorite outrage? I probably did. I couldn't possibly list them all — just as I couldn't possibly name every Trump policy proposal that breaks from longstanding American norms and traditions: The promised mass deportations, banning all members of an entire world religion, "loosening up" of libel law, flirtation with first-strike use of nuclear weapons, and on and on and on.
And that brings us down (it's always down) to the present moment of reality-freak show sleaze — a moment bound to be surpassed by something worse a few days or a week from now.
Trump and his sideshow acolytes will say that none of this is his fault — that the video published last Friday, in which Trump brags in vulgar terms about assaulting women sexually, like the flood of stories that have subsequently appeared in which women accuse Trump of having actually sexually assaulted them, is the result of a conspiracy between the Clinton campaign and the mainstream media to ensure Trump's defeat. It's a hit job. A well-planned and expertly executed oppo dump.
But that's him in the video, the Republican nominee for president, gloating about how his stardom permits him to grope women with impunity, and musing in another video about how he'll date a young child when she grows up.
The women who've come forward to accuse him are, of course, merely confirming what he said himself about his fondness for grabbing women's genitals. Either he was lying in the original video or these women are telling the truth.
Trump had the gall to hold a press conference with women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment and assault just two hours before a presidential debate. He sat those women in the debate audience. He echoed their accusations within the debate itself, even though the debate pitted him not against Bill Clinton himself but against Clinton's wife. He then promised, in retaliation for the latest stories alleging sexual assault, to dig up yet more female accusers of not-candidate Bill Clinton in order to "turn him into Bill Cosby."
All of this — every last scummy bit — is path-breaking in the worst possible sense. This is nothing less than the transformation of American political culture into a fascist-tinged re-do of The Jerry Springer Show. And we owe it all to Donald Trump.
Let's assume he loses, that the voters who are most devoted to him do not resort to violence upon hearing the news, and Trump himself doesn't meddle further in our politics with his infernal Twitter account — perhaps all of them dubious assumptions. What happens then? Is it possible that the spirit of degradation that Trump has unleashed within the culture will simply recede, allowing for a more edifying form of politics — the norms he's torn to pieces — to reemerge?
That seems unlikely. What's been done can be done again, but also cannot be undone. Once "normal" itself has been thrown on the trash heap, we've entered new terrain where the boundaries of the possible are much more difficult to find and define. What norms must a presidential campaign follow? What's expected of someone who seeks the highest office in the land? How should a would-be president comport himself or herself in public and private, in speeches and debates, on television and social media?
The longest-lasting legacy of the 2016 presidential campaign may well be that we no longer quite know how to answer such questions.