Nine weeks to go before the big ball drops, and I couldn't be more grateful. But what I keep focusing on as we hit the home stretch in the saddest election campaign in American history is not that Donald Trump is going to lose badly (more about that in a bit), but that the news media has succeeded in reaching a new low in treating as normal his predilection for hate speech.
Had it been a neo-Nazi in a khaki shirt with a swastika armband or a white supremacist surrounded by sinister men in hoods with burning crosses who called last week in Phoenix for the deportation of millions of people, as well as Hillary Clinton, and branded the adherents of an entire religion as terrorists with arm-slashing gestures while thousands of white people cheered rabidly and not the Republican candidate for president, it would have been hate speech plain and simple. And reported as such. But as I feared in writing last month about the perils of outrage fatigue and taking Trump's demagoguery for granted, that is exactly what has happened.
The New York Times in particular should be pilloried for Patrick Healy's la-di-dah coverage of the speech, which he described as "an audacious attempt" by Trump to transform his image. The story later went through several extensive edits when readers pointed out its inaccurate characterizations, but the damage had been done. Healy and The Times had been snookered by the Cheeto Jesus.
A friend who happened to have a story in the The Times a few pages back from Healy's screed on the Phoenix speech reminds me that a redeeming aspect of our digitized 24/7 news world is that errors in judgment, if not fact, on newspaper websites can be quickly corrected.§
I find it difficult to be as sanguine as he is because there is something else at work here that dulls the senses of usually thoughtful reporters like Healy: Trump has sold himself and his campaign as the ultimate reality show, and we know what that does to our brains.
Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post that Trump benefits from the reality show expectation of phoniness, but:
"We may have reached the limits of politics-as-reality television. Reality TV may favor scoundrels, but reality can be more judgmental. . . . Trump's bigger problem is that recent episodes of the Trump Show just aren't very good. His rapid dispatching of competitors during the primaries, his outrage du jour and his never-ending supply of insults made for gripping television, and his rivals never got enough attention to give Trump a serious challenge.
"But since the primaries, Trump's outrages and insults have become stale. Trump and his aides spent the last two weeks signaling that he was rethinking his immigration policy and would recast it in [the Phoenix] speech. He then delivered the same lines he has all along,
"The Trump Show has lost its coherent story lines, its narrative arc. Trump desperately needs a Quinn and Rachel to juice the plot, to manipulate where each episode is going."
Alas for The Donald, this will not happen. As utterly bizzaro as this election has been, the laws of physics have not been repealed and the weight of Trump's demographic deficiencies, to put nicely his lack of support virtually across the board, are slowly crushing him.
This is the part of the movie where the punditocracy, returning from a hard-earned Labor Day weekend pulling the wings off of houseflies, briefly pauses to ponder the contours of that home stretch. And what it all means.§
To me, this is what it all means:
* The biggest story is not the horse race, which was a foregone conclusion weeks ago, but that voters don't really want either candidate.
Hillary Clinton is an eminently decent person who happens to also be deeply flawed, and had the Republicans not done their dash by encouraging Donald Trump to crash their party, it is conceivable that a John Kasich or Marco Rubio would be taking the oath of office on January 20.
* As for the horse race, I am still predicting a Clinton landslide, but only in the "modern" sense of the word.
That means that Clinton will win the popular vote "only" by a comfortable margin -- by 8~10 million or so votes, roughly double Barack Obama's 2012 margin -- but will kick Trump's ass with a commanding electoral vote advantage in the neighborhood of 350-188, or about 20 more electoral votes than Obama received.
* There is no new Trump and never will be, and the narrowing of the race in recent days has less to do with him than the typical ebb and flow of the election season.
The man is pathologically unable to adjust to any reality that is not of his own making. His last best opportunity to prove that wrong will be the first presidential debate on September 26, but there is nothing Clinton does better than keep cool under pressure and there is nothing Trump does worse than act presidential when under attack.
My bottom line is that while Clinton will be the next president, and the long overdue first woman president, we began this election season with a political system that already was badly broken.
Things have only gotten worse with two deeply flawed candidates, one of them a monomaniac. A news media bent on performing the rituals of "objectivity" instead of truth telling while lowering the bar for Trump and raising it for Clinton. Only the briefest discussion of issues sandwiched between lavish coverage of Clinton's recurring "scandals" but not her exonerations while failing to come to terms with Trump's real scandals and his inherent dishonesty. And (yet again) the destructive impact of influence-buying big money.