“We kinda sent out the invites a few weeks ago … we weren’t sure whether we’d have it,” Hart (“H-E-A-R-T?”, “No E, dude”), a member of the Constitution Society, told me. We were on the third floor of the Tap, a huge open-plan brewhouse near the Washington University medical complex. Up the road, the second presidential debate was a couple of hours from starting.
The lawns were full of boosters in branded T-shirts from the various campaigns, none interacting, all of them trying to get posters in shot when the cable news cameras swung round. The Hillarybots had their hearts in it, neat daggy liberal arts and environmental science majors in “I’m With Her” sweatshirts, while the right were in two camps, a group of blow-in Trumpista crazies, and campus Republicans off elsewhere.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked a slim Aryan GOP boy with a side parting. “Hasn’t the party basically split?”
“Well uh, thing is, we get course credit, for Government, for this.”
“For this? Waving a ‘Blount for Senate’ sign behind the CNN presenters?”
“Yeah sounds funny when you say it, but, yeah.”
There were big screens set up in the Union, but it all seemed too polite. This was St Louis, where Ferguson happened, where the local Organization For Black Struggle had added sparks to Black Lives Matter and set things moving. I’d hoped for, expected, a manifestation, but there was none to be seen. Plan B for a debate watch was the local “Constitution Society”, at the Tap. I pictured a bunch of wannabe 22-year-olds, DC bound, already rocking out the red bow ties and pearls arguing about mens rea in the 16th amendment and such. I was hoping to needle them about Trump, and how the constitution-loving Republican Party had handed the machinery over to a man who thinks the president can change the libel laws.
Alas, as it turned out, when I hit the third floor of the Tap, all raw wood and rusted Americana on the walls, the Constitution Society was another bunch of nice kids getting course credit. They’d rocked their fake I.D.s and ordered IPAs and pizza, bless ’em. Three of them were having an argument about a sci-fi franchise I will never know about: “But the whole point about the Glebans is that they carry a memory trace of their other-dimensional being …” “Well duh …”, and the general mood was unexcited.
Two days after Trump’s Access Hollywood tapes had appeared, with the possible future president talking about “grabbing pussy” and how you’re allowed to when you’re famous, and tapes from his Howard Stern appearance, where he agreed, to Stern’s taunting daring challenge, that his daughter Ivanka was a “nice piece of ass”, Trump was now going to make a renewed application to be the leader of the country. The country had pretty much sagged in the middle at that thought. Watch parties were cancelled across the country. People just wanted it to be over. “We’d thought we’d do it anyway.” “Because-?” “Because beer.” Ah yes, beer, the great American buzz; the solution to, and cause of, all the nation’s problems. “Please join us. Would you like pizza? We’re going to the bar again. IPA?” Gah, t.e.h niceness, it hurts. It’s like being in a fucking Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
Whatever the debate was going to be, that wasn’t a problem. Everyone knew what we were in for: 90 minutes in which Donald Trump got to do and say pretty much whatever he wanted and dare the moderators to step in. By the end of the weekend, the charge that Bill Clinton was a rapist was being bandied around casually, in a manner that would happen nowhere else, a dubious extension of the principle of free speech.
The Clintons have already been accused of: trafficking cocaine using secret Arkansas airfields; murdering their friend Vince Foster over the “Whitewater” investment scheme; having a sham marriage that allows Hillary to pursue her lesbian S&M lifestyle; murdering two drifters who saw a botched drug deal; letting four embassy staff in Benghazi be murdered; being members of the Illuminati; and murdering Commerce secretary Ron Brown and 39 others who were on a plane with him. How bad would it get?
No one knew really. By Sunday, midday, Trump had been disendorsed by more than 150 Republican senators, congresspeople, governors and other grandees, and things were moving to a point of no return, with talk of whether he could be disendorsed — and how that would even be possible, given that voting had begun and ballots printed. Such discussions were an admission of defeat — the idea that the party would salve its honour by some noble “write-in” campaign, with the names suggested getting ever more crazy from Mike Pence to Mitt Romney, to, my favourite, Ivanka Trump.
On the Sunday morning TV news shows, the Trump surrogates were nowhere to be seen, the meaty, sweaty besuited men-boys who look like sales reps or death squads, the southern belles named Kaeylin or Lurlene Mae in blonde Farrah Fawcett dos and tarantula-size lashes, all gone. Instead, Rudy Giuliani was wheeled out to do four shows on a clip, from the TV studio in Trump Tower, “America’s Mayor” being chosen because he has such a record of infidelities and a sleazy air that the one thing he cannot be accused of is hypocrisy. “Hey — we’re all disgusting guys, but the alternative is Hillary.”
Rudy may or may not have helped, since in a CNN interview he more or less confirmed that Trump’s boast that fame allows him to “grab pussy” amounted to sexual assault. Trump’s cause was advantaged by the puritanism of American television — they could not bring themselves to say the word “pussy”, so they retreated to the charge that he “kissed them on the lips” without asking, or even that he had tried to, gasp, “seduce” a married woman — and the most damning of the accusations got lost in a Victorian mindset where libertinism was indistinguishable from assault. In one of the great moments of US television, Republican Ana Navarro said “pussy pussy pussy” and Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes begged her to stop because “my daughter is listening”.
Nevertheless, the charges had caused an avalanche in the party, and questions as to whether the candidate could continue. Would Trump even turn up for the debate? “Absolutely,” he said, having no clue what the man would do. The common wisdom was that Clinton would make mincemeat of him, and that his only option was to abase himself, get through it, and guarantee some continued support from the party. Talk surfaced of a Republican national phone hook-up, on Monday morning, to decide his fate.
But Trump wouldn’t have got this far without a measure of rat cunning that his opponents appear to lack — or feel it is beneath themselves to have. An hour before the debate was due to begin at Washington University, the travelling press were invited in to see Trump do some “debate prep”, and were greeted instead with an impromptu press conference, with Trump at a table flanked by four women: Juanita Broaddrick, who accuses Bill Clinton of raping her in the 1970s, Paula Jones, who accused him of sexual assault, Kathleen Willey, and Kathy Shelton, a 12-year-old girl raped in Arkansas in the ’70s, whose likely attacker was acquitted due to an able defence by young lawyer Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The cameras rolled, the thing was broadcast, without sound, across the news networks, and Trump had his gazump. It didn’t end — it soon became clear that the women would be in the audience, as invited guests of Trump. Indeed, later we would find out that Trump had wanted them in his “family box” of seats, with Melania and Ivanka and Tiffany, the spare daughter, and the blonde Lost Boy sons. The debates commission had put its foot down on that.
In the Tap, we gasped and reeled as this happened in real time. You’ve got to hand it to the Trump team; they excel in one thing, which is breaking the frame. The formal nature of American politics is one of the paradoxes of American life — that a society founded on revolution and ceaseless change will continually invent small traditions and petty continuities. Everything from the persistence of the penny to the failure of the metric system arises from this, and deadened political forms such as the debate are no exception. If it were anyone other than Trump, one would feel grateful for the shake-up, the exposure of the form whereby two members of a tight political system joust for 90 minutes in a contest that rigorously excludes anything that would challenge the system itself. As it is, it was Trump represented not a challenge to the system but its apotheosis, the raising to the ultimate power of the populist principle.
Hours later, when the thing was over, I noticed something that has become common with these sort of events: the thing that everyone focuses on as the most shocking moment, the breaking point … had failed to shock me. In this encounter, as tense, ugly and dissatisfying as everyone had expected it to be, one in which Trump, prowling the stage like an angry about-to-be-divorced husband at a mediation session, threw everything at Hillary Clinton, declaring her to have a “heart full of hate”, declaring that her fancy footwork with a private email server was the most disgusting thing to occur in American history, and promising, as president, to have his attorney-general — probably Bernie Madoff, working from prison — appoint a special prosecutor to “lock her up”.
Hillary: “We can all be thankful that Donald Trump Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.”
Donald: “You are, because you’d be in jail.”
It was this exchange that had people remarking that some new low had been reached, and I guess it was. But having been in a few rallies where Trump’s fevered enthusiasts had got the whole room chanting “lock her up”, I hadn’t really noticed the breach at the time. It had always seemed clear that Trump would go nuclear, and he is clearly a man who doesn’t care what he says, as long as it makes him dominant, by aggression; the content is immaterial. Nor could I really get excited by the content of the remarks. It didn’t seem illegitimate to me for a candidate to say that his opponent was a criminal and should be in prison; the charge was hurled at George W. Bush by candidates in the 2004 election after all, legitimately enough. There is no requirement against holding an opponent in contempt, and showing it, if that is what you really feel about them.
But of course, Trump doesn’t feel anything of the sort. The craggy, baggy orangutan that is Donald Trump now, is a constructed persona, personality and physique conformed to one another. For decades Trump was as smooth Wharton-educated New York bon vivant; in middle-age he was the tycoon, the man of power at the top of the tower. In both guises he was politically centrist, and socially liberal in the time-honoured fashion of such men: pro-choice on abortion because some day they may have to choose to bully their girlfriends into one. That man is still there; for the purposes of the election he has let a third one grow over them.
Trump, in his good suit and stupid baseball cap, his pressed shirt and rumpled skin, is now the angry man in the strip mall car park, someone whose simultaneous sense of being superior and yet cheated many can identify with. If you’re not part of his desperate cult, hoovering up the mix of fantasy and resentment he’s selling, Trump’s act is intolerable, a ground-zero mix of narcissism, toxicity and waste. The fact that he combines such pointless destructive anger with absolute fantasy that gulls millions only adds to the persistent sense of nausea the whole thing provokes.
It’s not enough for Trump to over-promise in the standard political fashion; his declarations of what he’ll do are like the gold-plated interiors of his penthouse apartment: nothing resembling life. He provokes a real disdain for the people willing to believe that shit. Some of them deserve it, white-skin privilege fantasists, desperate for a simple and total reversal of a century of history. But others don’t deserve the contempt, being simply the bewildered, the vulnerable, and the just, just ehhhhhhhhhh. In 2012 the Obama team skewered Romney with an ad in which a worker from one of the factories Mitt asset-stripped told the audience: “He’ll give you what he gave us. Nothing.” With Trump, it would be less than that.
Perhaps that’s the strange, uncanny feeling that lies at the root of the Trump phenomenon. There is a sense that something is very definitely happening — the Republican Party is coming apart, and with it, the core ideology of the white American empire — while there is the feeling that nothing at all is. It is always strange to be in the penumbra of history, and that is what the Trump phenomenon is. There is nothing in US history like it — not Teddy Roosevelt’s splitting of the Republican Party in 1912, nor Andrew Jackson’s destruction of the founding fathers’ pseudo-aristocracy in the 1820s, the events that come closest. Had Huey “The Kingfish” Long not been assassinated before his presidential run could begin in the 1930s there might have been a precursor — but The Kingfish, thuggish and proto-fascist, self-described “hick” as he was, was Pericles compared to Trump.
No one I can think of on the world stage has been so capable of embodying the hopes and dreams of millions, and at the same time utterly undermine the possibility of gaining the support of the majority required to implement them — and all through what appears to be the necessary and desired expression of his every obsession, tic, peccadillo and personal mark. It’s as if he devoted enormous energy to carving out a space of world fame so that he could act like a dick before billions and that would somehow validate the way he was. There is the feeling that, if anything about this was real, Trump would have found the discipline sufficient to put him on course for the White House.
Hence perhaps the delight in the Tap, when the final question came round — “what attributes do each of you admire in the other?” — and Clinton answered, “his children”. There was a round of applause for that, not merely for a smart and simple answer, but for imagining a world from which Trump himself was absent. It seemed the only moment of joy in the night. Ten minutes after the debate ended, the Tap was nine-tenths deserted, the Constitution Society departing with that irrepressible cheeriness — “Thanks for coming, dude, we really enjoyed having you here,” said a 20-year-old, pumping my hand — and Bon Jovi and NFL back on the screens, and triangles of pizza everywhere, their points curling, like tongues escape a body, yearning to be free.