If you work in politics, you tend to apportion your career by election cycles, and certain memories from each one stay with you. I’ll never forget in 2009 getting a high-five from Chris Christie after he’d just given his victory speech—he had real promise as a reformer back then. From 2010, there was that time a group of Scott Brown canvassers I was shadowing barely escaped from a Cumberland Farms parking lot after being besieged by motorists demanding yard signs and bumper stickers, a prescient sign if ever there was one. And I can still recall those gin-and-tonics I drank at that farcical Mitt Romney victory party on Election Day in 2012. I had eight of them.
When the tide of this election at last goes out, what memories will it leave shimmering on the sand? I found myself thinking about that yesterday, and the answer, it seems, is only bad ones. Right now, the images that spring to mind mostly involve Donald Trump, if only because he’s this election’s most memorable aberration. There’s Donald Trump sneering that Rand Paul shouldn’t have been allowed into that presidential debate, Donald Trump roaring about “Little Marco” while flinging water out of a bottle, Donald Trump addressing the Republican convention in front of that grandiose video of himself while the North Korean functionaries in the audience clapped along.
Follow this election long enough and you fall victim to a sort of Stockholm Syndrome. You start to believe that, because we’ve been held hostage for so long by Trump’s antics and Clinton’s corruption, that the abnormal is really the normal, that this is how it’s supposed to be. You forget that previous election controversies were limited to banalities like George H.W. Bush checking his watch during a debate or his son’s campaign airing a commercial in which the “rats” in “Democrats” lingered onscreen a millisecond longer than the rest of the word. During the 2000 town hall, Al Gore was thoroughly derided for creeping up beside George W. Bush; in this week’s debate, the backdrop for every Hillary Clinton answer was Trump lurching through the background like he had Victor Frankenstein hot on his trail, and that wasn’t even the weirdest part of the evening.
This has been a long, aberrant, arduous, taxing election, and I say that not just as a pundit who’s been forced to cover it every day. Our entire nation has taken a toll. The protests outside Trump rallies earlier this year demonstrate how many Americans feel about the Republican frontrunner. “Lock her up” is a sentiment shared not just by florid conservatives, but a good portion of the electorate. Both candidates are held in utter contempt with approval ratings usually reserved for venereal disease. And yet—this is the most awful part—both insist that, after all manner of torture, we must choose one of our hooded dungeon keepers for promotion to the most powerful office in the world.
I just finished rereading one of my favorite novels, The Plague by Albert Camus. It chronicles the humdrum town of Oran as its residents try to maintain their habits, their sense of normalcy, while they’re ravaged by a deadly plague. “They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views,” Camus writes. “How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views.” This year, our politics has the plague, yet we’ve surreally pushed on with our routine debates and conventions, superimposing them over the freakishness of Trump and Clinton. There are times we even seem to convince ourselves that this is just another election. Surely we won’t remember it that way—will we?