By Finbarr Curtis
Donald Trump will likely win tonight's presidential debate against Hillary Clinton. By win I do not mean that he will make more cogent arguments or demonstrate a superior grasp of political reality. He will certainly not do that. Rather, Trump can consider his performance a victory if he can convince 2-4 percent of American voters that he is merely plausible.
The reason he needs only to be plausible is that his critics have warned of his monstrosity. Commentators have struggled to find a language that can communicate the outlandish quality of the preternatural threat he poses to American democracy. It seems unreal that someone can insult the disabled and prisoners of war, can make overtly bigoted statement after statement, can believe something as extreme as birtherism and disbelieve something as obvious as global warming, can funnel campaign donations to his own businesses, can pattern his campaign after a fantastically corrupt Ukrainian oligarch who made no pretense of seeking power for anything other than his own enrichment, and can inspire a general atmosphere of fascist violence throughout his campaign performances. We are repeatedly reminded that this is not normal.
But this begs the question of what one means by normal. After each time Trump says or does something that goes too far, you think this cannot be happening. But it does happen. The news cycle goes on, and you get used to it. What was previously shocking then seems like no big deal when the next outrageous event happens. All of this is either terrifying or thrilling depending on who you are. It is possible that the Trump phenomenon is as unbelievable to Trump's supporters as it is to his detractors. He inspires such messianic devotion because he redeems people who felt like they had to code or conceal their racism and sexism, and now cannot believe their own freedom to speak their minds openly without shame or apology.
One reason why commentators have struggled to make sense of Trump is they have been so focused on the shocking and spectacular that it is easy to overlook what happens after the shock, when we settle into a new normal, everyday, familiar, conventional reality. Talk of deplorable monsters makes sense when describing a campaign of white supremacy that rewards the loyalties of Nazis and Klansmen. But the focus on the monstrous often neglects to make sense of the ordinary and human quality of hatred. Nazis and Klansmen have jobs and families, and worry when their bills are unpaid or their kids get sick. The things that Nazis and Klansmen do are the kinds of things that ordinary people are capable of doing.
Trump plays this gap between the monstrous and the human to his own advantage. His supporters often assure skeptics that if they got to meet Trump in person they would have a very different impression of the man. What this means is that they themselves met Trump and had an ordinary conversation in which he listened to what they said, and this was so unexpected as to be remarkable. They then came away thinking that maybe what he said was not so crazy after all.
The power of spectacle works best when it is followed by the kind of normalization that happens in a debate in which two candidates get equal time to answer the same questions. This is why Trump can win merely by appearing to be a human being. This does not necessarily mean he will win the election. But it does mean that it is possible. The defining lesson of the Trump campaign is not its impossibility, then, but its reminder that sexism and white supremacy are familiar and ordinary features of American life.