US Politics: As Low as It Gets

Donald Trump
Donald Trump; drawing by James Ferguson

The story of the summer, and perhaps of the last year, has been the long wait for Donald Trump to go too far. Within weeks of the announcement of his candidacy in June 2015, seasoned observers of the political game were regularly declaring that the reality TV star had crossed the line that separates viability from oblivion, that he had broken this or that unbreakable rule and was therefore doomed.

For some, it was Trump’s insistence that John McCain was not a war hero, a statement of astonishing chutzpah coming from a man who had evaded the draft five times—four through college deferments, the fifth thanks to a doctor’s note citing bone spurs in his feet—and who has elevated his determination not to catch a sexually transmitted disease, despite libertine levels of promiscuity, into his “personal Vietnam.”

For others, it was Trump’s promise to deport 11 million undocumented migrants from the US. Or his call for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the United States. Or his mocking impersonation of a disabled reporter. Or his suggestion that a female TV anchor was hostile because she was menstruating. Any one of those actions could have been terminal for a previous presidential candidate, competing under the old rules. After all, the mere appearance of tears had been enough to finish off Ed Muskie in 1972, just as a few plagiarized lines destroyed Joe Biden in 1988. Yet somehow Trump kept on winning.

The result was an unfamiliar loss of confidence in the ranks of the pundits. The usual rulebook, which they had studied and memorized, seemed no longer to apply. Trump appeared able to get away with anything. As he observed of his own political invincibility, he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and start shooting and people would still vote for him. Honest political professionals who would have known what this twist or that turn would have meant in America BT—Before Trump—could not be sure if they meant anything at all in the new era. If politics had always served as show business for ugly people, now it seemed to be complying with one of showbiz’s most unforgiving laws, famously distilled by William Goldman: “No one knows anything.”

As July turned into August, something like normal politics resumed. The parents of a fallen US serviceman, Captain Humayun Khan, appeared on stage together at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia. Cutting a distinguished, erudite figure on stage—a kind of Muslim Atticus Finch—the soldier’s lawyer father, Khizr Khan, noted that, had Donald Trump had his way, his son “never would have been in America. Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims.” Then, in a moment that would be replayed endlessly, Khan reached into his breast pocket for the text of the US Constitution and urged the Republican nominee to look up the words “equal protection” and “liberty.”

It was Trump’s response that made…

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