The events of the past three days would be comical if the stakes weren't so enormously high.
A presidential race destabilized by the FBI director renewing a criminal investigation of the Democratic nominee just 11 days before the election because of new evidence found on the hard drive of the nominee's top aide's estranged husband, a disgraced former congressman who is himself being investigated for exchanging sexually explicit texts with a 15-year-old girl. It sounds less realistic than House of Cards.
But this is the year that political reality descended to the depth of the pulpiest pulp fiction. And no one in American public life, it seems, can escape the taint.
It may well be that the FBI director acted foolishly in deciding to announce so close to Election Day his intent to look into newly discovered evidence of potential wrongdoing by a presidential candidate. But was it more foolish than the attorney general's decision, a few months earlier, to meet privately with the candidate's husband (and former president of the United States) in the days leading up to her announcement of whether she would be criminally prosecuting the candidate? Or more foolish than the candidate's original decision to conduct high-level State Department business on an unsecured server in her private home (and then to delete 33,000 of those emails), which is what set in motion the criminal investigation in the first place — an investigation that now looks likely to continue past the election, possibly leading the next president of the United States to begin her term in office with the threat of indictment hanging over her head?
There's been far more than enough foolishness to go around during this interminable political season. But now we need to hope that the voters somehow manage to exercise better judgment than some of the nation's leading public figures. Because the fact remains that despite all of Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate, all of her questionable judgment calls, all of her corruptions (petty and perhaps more than petty), and all of her sometimes imprudent and self-destructive decisions, the choice on Nov. 8 remains an easy one. Donald Trump must not, under any circumstances, be elected president. Which means that Clinton needs to prevail, despite it all.
This is not a matter of simple-minded partisanship.
If Clinton were running against a moderately appealing, standard-issue, post-Reagan Republican opponent — a Mitt Romney, a Jeb Bush, a Marco Rubio — the polls throughout the summer and fall would likely have been much less lopsided going into the final stretch, and then James Comey's Friday bombshell would likely have sent the Clinton campaign into the ditch. Devoted Democrats would have been livid and rallied to the candidate's side all the way to the bitter end, but most Americans would have concluded it made sense to avoid risking a presidency plagued by scandal, distracted by subpoenas, and haunted by the threat of impeachment and indictment.
But as the country is well aware, Trump is not a moderately appealing, standard-issue, post-Reagan Republican opponent. He is a menace to American democracy — a know-nothing demagogic con man who hasn’t released his tax returns, who brags about assaulting women, who has invited Vladimir Putin to meddle in the presidential election while also suggesting on the basis of no evidence at all that the election will be "rigged" against him, and who regularly uses social media to promote white supremacists and neo-Nazis (who increasingly feel emboldened to spew their civic poison in public).
And that's just the most minimal accounting of Trump's offenses against the norms of liberal democratic politics. An exhaustive list (rapists and criminals…"take the oil" … mocking a disabled reporter… "pigs, slobs, and dogs"… Muslim ban… withdrawal from NATO… Judge Gonzalo Curiel… first use of nukes… Khizr and Ghazala Kahn…) would require several columns to properly catalogue.
One need not envision anything like worst case scenarios — or even assume that Trump follows through on the most irresponsible of his blustering domestic and international threats — to see that his temperament makes him entirely unfit to serve as president of the United States. In the words of The New York Times' Ross Douthat, "a basic level of presidential competence and self-control is itself a matter of life and death — for Americans, and for human beings the world over."
Clinton's shortcomings and faults are real. But they come nowhere close to surpassing those of her opponent. Clinton's conservative, left-liberal, and sensibly centrist critics can lament this fact and wish that the country were presented with another, better option on either side. But they cannot reasonably conclude that, given the choice before us, the prospect of an ongoing investigation into emails and a computer server rivals or exceeds the monumental risks of elevating Trump to the presidency.
This is clear on the basis of everything we already know about the FBI investigation — and, more importantly, it will remain clear regardless of whatever Comey (or his successor) finds in whatever remains of his investigation into that or any other matter that may come to light over the next four years.
Sloppiness, corruption, rule-bending, and even (potential) law-breaking are bad, but none of them change the fact that this year the Republican Party nominated a man who must never be president. That will not change. And thus neither will the character of the choice before the American people.