The last four days or so have shown that much of our political discourse has been reduced to little more than clickbait. On Friday a video was leaked showing Donald Trump discussing women in crude, vulgar, and also downright strange language. His talk of “moving heavily” on a woman and using the phrase “furniture shopping,” as if it had some hidden sexual innuendo, was bizarre. However, the moment on the tape when he boasts of grabbing women by their private parts has rightfully drawn the most attention. A candidate for President of the United States openly bragged and joked about sexually assaulting women. For a brief moment it looked like the Republican enablers who have turned a blind eye to so many racist, sexist, bigoted, dangerous and foolish thing their candidate has said, had finally had enough.
On Friday and Saturday Republicans who had not seen it fit to abandon their candidate when he insulted Mexicans or Muslims, was revealed to have consistently used sexist language over the last few decades, was shown to have very disturbing links to Russia, demonstrated an ignorance of the basics on most issue or of how governance works, began to leave their candidate. Although it was good to see that there was a line that many Republicans would not allow their candidate to cross, it was distressing to see how many lines they had let him cross in the previous months. It was additionally difficult to avoid the conclusion that for many in the GOP racist and Islamaphobic language was acceptable, because they don’t need those votes they way they need the votes of the white women who were rightly furious about the leaked video.
For much of those two days the Republican leadership, to the extent their is any, alternated between paroxysms of angry denunciations of Trump’s words to fantasies about replacing Donald Trump on their ticket. On Sunday things looked bad for the erstwhile real estate heir as he holed up in his Manhattan tower, as even his own campaign manger canceled television appearances and campaign surrogate Rudy Giuliani tried to downplay the meaning of Trump’s remarks.
And then the debate happened. The question about the tape came up right away, but Trump managed to stumble through with a semi-apology. The Republican nominee spent the rest of the night attacking Hillary Clinton, threatening to have he locked up if he were elected, and physically and verbally bludgeoning and stumbling through the ninety minute debate. By Monday morning it was not clear who had won the debate, but it was clear that a Presidential nominee caught on tape bragging about disgusting and criminal behavior was no longer a top story.
This is the media climate in which this election, and perhaps all future politics, will occur. We are now a country where pretty much everybody will get two paragraphs into a story about the economy, decide to click on that post about the 22 most embarrassing things that happened on a first date, notice the sale on dog treats, and then get curious about the weather in Petaluma. This was the dynamic that saved Trump’s candidacy over the last 96 hours, but it may also be the one that does irreparable damage to our democracy.
We have now become a political community where we literally cannot remain focused on the possible criminal behavior of a candidate for the highest office in the land for more than a few days. It turned out to be timely for Trump that the debate was scheduled for Sunday, but if it hadn’t been the debate it would have been something else. Thus far he has changed the conversation about his anti-Mexican comments by breaking new ground in Islamaphobia, has drawn attention away from the Trump University ripoff, remember that?, by revelations about his campaign’s ties to Russia. Sunday night was just the latest in this pattern; and we can be sure there will be another scandal that will arise to distract our attention from his ominously nervous body language during the debate. That has been the singular contribution of the Trump campaign to political strategy. He has turned the previous conventional wisdom of “when you’re in a hole stop digging,” into “when you’re in a hole, get out and immediately start digging a deeper one.”
Speculation about whether the Republican Party can survive the debacle that the Trump campaign has been occurring for months, but the broader question of whether American political mores and institutions can survive not just the damage done by this bigoted uninformed huckster, but the current technological and media climate. When paying sustained attention to anything, even a presidential candidate’s assertions of his own criminal behavior, has become something that voters, politicians and the media are all increasingly unable to do, democracy is imperiled.