Exceeded Expectations

It’s not just that there is no one to compare Trump to—it’s that he himself is a moving, rubber target. This volatility means that we can’t even compare Trump to Trump.

Everyone was able to tick off a box in their burden of proof: yes, he is a fascist.

On Sunday night, during the second debate, it finally hit me: the possibility of a Trump presidency. Until that point, I hadn’t fully reckoned with it. Or rather, I hadn’t succumbed to its totality. We’ve been living under Trump for over a year now, chatting constantly about his women, his money, his hair. I had felt the ridiculousness of Trump before, but this was the first time I felt infected by it.

It felt a little like the brief realization that you’re going to die. It seemed impossible that everyone else in the world should be acting so sensibly, at a moment like this. I felt angry, and sad because my anger was futile. One can’t live with that feeling all the time, and slowly it receded. But it dominated my mind at work on Monday, sitting back and listening to the people who were capable of feeling rational about Trump.

The post-debate buzz said that while Hillary was the stronger candidate, she could have done better responding to Trump’s attacks about her emails and she missed an opportunity to take him down on Obamacare. For his part, Trump didn’t do enough to reassure his GOP base after the Washington Post video, and Martha Raddatz seemed to know more than him not only about Aleppo, but also about what constitutes foreign policy. (“Tell me what your strategy is.”) This side-by-side comparison was painful to listen to, though it is baked into the premise of the debate itself. Even Trump’s promise to prosecute Hillary if elected was treated coolly. A few people called it fascist—but only in the most technical sense. Everyone was able to tick off a box in their burden of proof: yes, he is a fascist. And by about noon, the issues were overtaken by the figure of Ken Bone, a man targeted for his normcore sweater and suggestive last name.

I talked to my therapist about the debate. She suggested that my despair had to do with a feeling that Trump had disrupted my ability to connect to other people. The tension he created onstage even through his body language was deeply alienating—his lack of connection with the town hall (who all seemed cool as cucumbers), his tendency to dominate the stage by hovering behind Clinton, and his apparent refusal to hear or respond to the questions asked. I carried this alienation with me through the following day. My frustration with how everyone else was dealing with the debate—with memes rather than political feeling—was an expression of exposure to Trump.

This was confirmed on Tuesday by the sinister David Brooks’s column on Trump’s lack of human connection, “Donald Trump’s Sad, Lonely Life.” In it, Brooks examines the second debate from the perspective of the candidates as people: though Clinton is not a “paragon of intimacy,” he writes, Trump “treated his questioners as unrelatable automatons and delivered his answers to the void.” Why? Because Trump is lonely, unable to connect with other humans and “politics is an effort to make human connection,” Brooks writes.

After thirty-six hours of evaluation, the final verdict pronounced by news outlets was that Clinton had won the debate. But she “played it safe,” while Trump “exceeded expectations.” This false equivalence is an acknowledged problem in the press when it comes to covering Trump. Some of this is the struggle to remain objective. The industry standard is now that Donald Trump can, in fact, be called a liar, because he has objectively lied enough to earn that title. But we still speak about Clinton in harsher terms than we do Trump, because our expectations are lower: “Once expectations were lowered to the point that we in the media were speculating about whether Trump’s own running mate might drop out,” wrote Nate Silver, “any half-decent performance was bound to look good.”

In fact, our expectations keep changing. They’re practically nonexistent. It’s not just that there is no one to compare Trump to—it’s that he himself is a moving, rubber target. This volatility means that we can’t even compare Trump to Trump. It is this changing baseline against which we judge Trump—his trollishness—that ends up fragmenting any collective feeling. He doesn’t just reject criticism, he refracts it. Throughout this election, many people have identified this and called Trump a narcissist or a sociopath. Brooks has done it, I’ve done it—psychologizing is an inevitable reaction and a compelling practice. But we should focus less on diagnosing Trump and look more at ourselves: how living in the age of Trump affects our ability to respond to him and one another.

The thing I heard most often on Monday was that the best-case scenario for Hillary is one where Trump stays in the race. I understand the wisdom of this approach—in the US, the election is all about strategy, and voting against is as important as voting for. There isn’t any hope for replacing Trump unless he himself steps down, which he doesn’t plan to do, but the fact is that we hope he will stay onstage, keep advertising his businesses while shitting on women, because it is tactically best for Clinton.

Most of the time, of course, I accept the tactical reasoning and move on—as everyone else does. But there are moments when voting strategically feels too rational. Everyone wants to feel the irrational thing—the upset and the rage—but only if it moves us to action: activism or vocation. We want everyone in the US to feel it. We are trying to summon this feeling where it isn’t appearing. Is it because watching Trump is so isolating?

In the last question of the debate, a voter asked what the candidates respected about each other. Trump, who answered second, said that Hillary was a fighter and didn’t give up. Was this genuine? Clinton, who answered first, said that she respected his children—an elegant dodge, but not an empty one: the fact that he had such children, she said, shows something good about his parenting.

Clinton had pointed toward the most invisible part of Trump. What is his connection with his children, this man with no connections? She said a thing that any polite and practiced politician might have said, but in doing so she revealed a hollowness. Much about Trump is invisible: where did all his supporters come from? Does he have any friends? Does he have any money?

The biggest mystery of the debate, to me, was who the undecided voters in the town hall were. Are they Republicans who can’t make up their mind about whether to vote for Trump? But, more importantly: how can they stand to exist, publicly, in such a fraught, unpredictable battleground? How could they still be unmoored after sixteen months of Trump?

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