20 Days to Go: The Death of a Star?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Details from online Oxford University astrophysics course, showing how a supernova puffs itself up into a giant fireball before it explodes and dies. Hmmm, why does this image come to mind? (Oxford)

Over the past three days, as the Trump campaign has condensed into a tight ball of fury, recklessness, and recrimination, I’ve again been away from the Time Capsule beat. Partly this has been because of some unexpected last-minute article-writing duties. (Be on the lookout for our December issue! And before that, the new November one, just out now. And with the holiday season ahead, subscriptions make a great gift!) Partly it has been because of a planned and unexpectedly fascinating immersion with members of the Purpose Built Community network, this week at their national conference here in Birmingham, Alabama (where long ago I celebrated my 19th birthday while working as a reporter for The Southern Courier).

Some catch-up notes before tonight’s final debate:

1) Death with Dignity. Tim Miller, who was communications director for Jeb Bush’s doomed presidential campaign and has worked for other Republicans, has a wonderful essay in The Ringer called “Donald Trump is on a Presidential Death March We’ve Never Seen Before.” It addresses a part of politics that is vastly more agonizing for participants than it seems from outside: losing, in public, in a way that has no real counterpart.

When a baseball batter strikes out in a crucial bases-loaded, two-outs situation, or a basketball player misses a free throw or a quarterback throws an interception, it hurts. But there’s always the next game or the next season, and anyway you’re getting paid. When an actor misses out on an Oscar or Emmy—hey, you’re breaking my heart.

But when a politician loses a race, most of all for the presidency, it is all-out public failure on the biggest possible stage, leaving a mark that never really goes away. (The hoary joke on this theme was that after his 1984 landslide loss to Ronald Reagan, the 100 percent admirable Walter Mondale asked George McGovern “when does it stop hurting?”, referring to McGovern’s landslide loss to Richard Nixon 12 years earlier. “I’ll let you know,” the also-admirable McGovern is said to have replied.) And in a race for the White House, it’s an all-or-nothing outcome. On one side, four years with Air Force One and the attention of the world. On the other, four years of working off campaign debts and traversing the country for second-tier forums.

Bearing defeat is all the harder when you can see it coming, as McGovern and Mondale did, and as now seems very likely for Trump. And hardest of all if you have the emotional maturity of a child. Tim Miller’s piece does an excellent job of explaining why political defeat is an ordeal for anyone, and why impending defeat is bringing out even-worse aspects of Trump. (Also, please read Max Boot’s “What the Hell Happened to My Republican Party?” in Foreign Policy as an important complement.)

2) Trump Nation. Please be sure also to check out the reader emails that Chris Bodenner has been curating over the past few days in the Trump Nation thread, exploring such questions as “What If Trump Is the One ‘Rigging’ the Election?” and “Have Print Newspapers Risen From the Dead to Defeat Trump?

3) Do debates matter? In my October-issue piece on the debates, I mention the tut-tutting caution about debates from political scientists. When journalists discuss “influential” moments in past debates—the contrast in physical appearance between the sweaty Richard Nixon and the debonair John Kennedy in 1960, Ronald Reagan’s ease on the stage in 1980 and Jimmy Carter’s tenseness—scholars are quick to say there’s no hard testable proof that the debates really affected the outcome. So many other forces were at play; reaction to debates is to hard to quantify; etc. (My own view is that even if debates don’t provably determine who wins and loses the race, they still matter, as a lot of other intangibles do—convention speeches, ad campaigns, the good- or bad-breaks of unexpected news, etc. You can read more about the dispute in the piece.)

When this campaign is over, I’ll be interested to hear what the political scientists have to say. Because at the moment it certainly appears that the first Clinton-Trump debate had some effect. Here’s a screen shot of the “polls-plus” forecast of election odds, from Nate Silver’s 538 site. The blue and red trend lines are from 538. I’ve added the black arrow. See if you can guess which event the arrow indicates.

“Polls-plus” forecast from 538. The first Clinton-Trump debate was on September 26, the date indicated by the black arrow.

4) The prescience of Jane Goodall, cont. In my debate piece, I quoted the famous primatologist on the resemblances between Trump’s on-stage mannerisms and the dominance rituals of chimpanzees. Then installment #137 looked at the way Trump had actually put these dominant moves into effect when he was free to roam the stage in the second, town hall-style debate. His lurking and looming behind Clinton led to the famous recent SNL routine, and to the (admiring!) comment by his UK counterpart Nigel Farage that Trump resembled a “silverback gorilla.”

To close the loop, a reader in the UK sent a newspaper cartoon that illustrates what Jane Goodall was talking about. Who would have guessed that her eminence and insight extends into the realm of modern American politics?

From a reader in the UK

One more debate to watch. 20 days to go. And—lest we forget—the Speaker of the House, the Majority Leader of the Senate, and most members of the Republican party still say: let’s make this man president.