One topic that will be the focus of Wednesday’s final presidential debate is fitness for the job. The timing is perfect. Republican nominee Donald Trump’s unhinged behavior in the last week will go down in American history as among the most wide-ranging assaults on fundamentals of democracy and civility this nation has seen from a leading politician. The closest parallel may be Joe McCarthy.
It’s bad enough Trump turned his second debate ad lib about his hope, if elected, to imprison Hillary Clinton into a staple of his campaign speeches. But now he is telling Americans that there is a vast, far-reaching conspiracy targeting him involving Clinton, “international banks,” the media, registrars of voters, the women who have accused him of awful behavior and others. This conspiracy’s goal isn’t just rigging the election for Clinton, Trump said; it is “the destruction of U.S. sovereignty.”
What evidence does he offer for this immense conspiracy? None.
The New York billionaire has said disturbing, unfounded things since beginning his campaign. But since the Oct. 7 release of a 2005 tape in which Trump made vile boasts about he treated women — and his subsequent decline in most national polls — the New York billionaire has bulldozed the norms of decency traditionally seen in public life. That list only starts with his suggestion that U.S. democracy is a lie. He’s also insulted Clinton’s appearance and suggested she should be tested for illegal drugs before the debate. He’s dismissed the women who have accused him of repugnant behavior as too unattractive to be worthy of his unwanted advances. And 240 years after the birth of American democracy and decades after the emergence of the U.S. as Earth’s most successful nation, Trump seems as determined to do as much damage to our system of government as he can by bringing hatred, paranoia and bile into the political mainstream.
This editorial board acknowledges, as we have on several occasions, that there are reasons to worry about Hillary Clinton’s honesty and transparency. From her first months as first lady — when Clinton helped arrange the firing of the staff of the White House travel office, according to “overwhelming evidence” found by an independent investigator, yet denied having a role — to more recent evasions and double-talk in explaining her use of a private email server while secretary of state, Clinton’s behavior should make even her admirers wince.
Nevertheless, she was an effective U.S. senator for eight years and lasted four years in a difficult, nuanced job as secretary of state, building productive relationships with lawmakers and international leaders. There is nothing in Donald Trump’s history that offers similar reassurances he is suited for the give and take, the slings and arrows, of public life. When awful things happen — the weekend firebombing of a county GOP office in North Carolina is only the latest example — his initial inclination is to be coarse, accusatory and divisive.
A man this vindictive, this devoid of empathy, this certain of his infallibility, would be a menace as commander in chief. The fact that he made it this close is hard to comprehend. That’s why a case can be made that Nov. 8, 2016, is the most ominous election in American political history. We hope it does not prove the most consequential.