The referee should have stopped it in the tenth. Punching at will, Donald Trump said, “Hillary used the power of her office to make $250 million. Why not put some money in? You made a lot of it while you were secretary of State? Why aren’t you putting money into your own campaign? Just curious.” Reeling and against the ropes, Clinton gasped that she supported … the Second Amendment. It was a brilliant rhetorical device: under the rubric of campaign financing, Trump slipped in an allegation that Clinton corruptly enriched herself by using the power of her office for personal gain–and Clinton didn’t even respond. That’s a win by a knockout.
That’s the decisive issue of the campaign: the corrupt machinations of a ruling elite that considers itself above the law, and the rage of the American people against the oligarchical ruling class that has pulled the ladder up behind it. Trump’s bombshell below Clinton’s waterline came at the end of the debate, well prepared by jabs at Clinton’s erased emails and Bill’s rapes. Trump used the “J” word–that is, jail. That was perhaps the evening’s most important moment. This is not an election fought over competing policies but a struggle for legitimacy. A very large portion of the electorate (how large a portion we will discover next month) believes that its government is no longer legitimate, and that it has become the instrument of an entrenched rent-seeking oligarchy.
By and large, I agree with this reading. “America’s economy is corrupt, cartelized and anti-competitive,” I wrote in August. It is typical of rent-seeking that Lockheed Martin’s stock price has tripled during the past three years, and payment to its top management team has risen from $12 million a year to over $60 million a year, while Lockheed Martin’s F-35 languishes in cost overruns and deployment delays. Produce a lemon and get rich: that’s Washington. It is not a trivial matter, or unrepresentative of our national condition, that the FBI director who declined to prosecute Mrs. Clinton for mishandling of classified material just returned to government from a stint at Lockheed Martin, where he was paid $6 million for a single year’s service. I don’t know whether FBI Director Comey is corrupt. But it looks and smells terrible.
That’s why it was so important for Trump to talk about jail time for his opponent. If things had not gotten to the point where former top officials well might belong in jail, Trump wouldn’t be there in the first place. The Republican voters chose a reckless, independently wealthy, vulgar, rough-edged outsider precisely because they believe that the system is corrupt. They are right to so believe; if the voters knew a tenth of what I know about it, they would march on Washington with pitchforks.
The whole weekend news cycle centered around Trump’s potty-mouth tape, which will count for exactly nothing in the final tally. No-one who has followed Donald Trump in public media for the past thirty years expected anything less from the great vulgarian. We are stuck with Trump precisely because the Republican establishment imploded over Iraq and the economy.
I assumed that Trump’s diffidence during the first debate amounted to profiling his opponent. No-one would remember what was said in the first debate come the general election, and Trump appeared to be probing and watching Clinton’s responses. This time he has bloodied her. Whether there is more to come–a thermonuclear revelation of some kind–I have no idea. But given Trump’s experience in the entertainment business, we can assume that the really nasty stuff will come out later.
Whoever wins, a very large part of the electorate–perhaps more than a third–will believe that the government lacks legitimacy. We have not had circumstances like this since the Civil War. If Trump loses, his voters will blame a corrupt oligarchy and its allied media for electing a criminal to the White House; if Clinton loses, the minority constituencies of the Democratic Party will respond as if the Klu Klux Klan had taken over Washington. There has never been anything like this in the past century and a half of American history, and it is thankless to predict the outcome. Nonetheless I will: Trump will crush it. Clinton, the major media, the pollsters, and the mainstream Republican Party have badly misread the insurrectionist mood of the electorate.