Trump's Legacy: The Line That He Crossed? Or Elimination Of The Line?

As a constant consumer and frequent creator of political content, I've written very few columns about Donald Trump in this space - and none attacking his personal character. There seemed to already be plenty of industrial strength opinion pieces appearing daily that focused on the disgusting parts of the man. Plus, I just didn't like the way it made me feel. Why give him the ink.

About a month ago, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni graciously granted me an interview on my weekly podcast. Knowing that he, too, found Trump appalling, I asked him if he hated having to write about Trump due to the seriousness of him being the GOP nominee. The first part of Bruni's answer surprised me, as he described Trump as a "fascinating character" and "a kind of gift to writers." It caught me off guard because it indicated he could somewhat detach himself from the qualities he clearly can't stand about Trump. Personally, I have a much tougher time pulling that off. But it was the second part of Bruni's answer that I found to be far more meaningful, because he articulated something that I think a ton of Americans have been concerned about - long before Trump's explosive insertion into this presidential campaign:

"I hate so much what our political life and our political process has become. And I hate the ways in which he has become a vessel and a symbol of that. That really bothers me." 

It bothers me, too. But Trump isn't merely a vessel or carrier of this coarseness in our politics that's been getting worse for decades. He's more like a new mad scientist who's burst onto the scene to pour his own blend of plutonium into the fuel tank.

While it's true that anyone still capable of being objective about the two major party nominees will easily find substantial fault in the actions both have committed in their careers, only one of them has lowered the bar of our public discourse to a subterranean level. And it's not just Trump compared to Clinton, it's Trump compared to every other candidate in both primaries. For that matter, every other major candidate I've seen over the nine presidential campaigns in my lifetime.

Don't get me wrong - I'm no Boy Scout. Several years of managing U.S. Senate and House campaigns out of Chicago will quickly acquaint you with hardball politics. And a cursory review of America's founders will remind us that the rough stuff has been a part of our political process ever since our very earliest elections.

But guerilla campaign tactics and puerile public behavior in politics are two quite different things. It's still hard to believe that we've actually witnessed all of Trump's cruelties and obscenities over the last 18 months - that it hasn't been a joke. That we're not all smack dab in the middle of our own "Truman Show" episodes. It would be tiresome to go over the full laundry list at this late date, but just dip into the basket and you'd swear you were talking about things coming out of the mouth of a misbehaving nine-year old. Insulting Carly Fiorina's face? Comparing Ben Carson to a child molester? Bragging about the size of his penis in a national TV debate? Making fun of Rand Paul's looks? Marco's Rubio's height? Jeb Bush's masculinity? Publicly doubting the citizenship of the President of the United States? For five years?? All of this happened. Often repeatedly. It even inspired an author-couple to write and illustrate an "anti-hate alphabet" book to try to teach kids the kind of behavior they should be rejecting.

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But far beyond adolescent antics, Trump took lying to a new stratosphere. Most political candidates are truth-challenged, and most certainly so is Clinton. But when the non-partisan (Pulitzer Prize-winning) PolitiFact compared the two? The proven difference was staggering. Trump's dishonesty has been just record-setting. The lie that still stands out most to me was in response to being asked whether he would disavow white supermacist David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan. Looking straight into a network camera, Trump said: "I know nothing of David Duke." A lie.

The most recent surreality? While listening to Sirius XM in my car I heard the news of Melania Trump's speech where she took a prinicipled - yet thoroughly ironic - stand against cyber-bullying. I nearly lost control of my vehicle. Imagine the on-stage impression Donald Trump would do of Melania if she were his political opponent instead of his wife. The hypocrisy is SNL-worthy.

Hours after her speech, as CNN commentators were pointing out the absurdity of the source, the always reasonable David Gergen broadened it out: "It's about more than bullying that's at stake here. This is about the coarsening of American politics. It's about the changing culture that we have seen."

And that's the line Trump has criss-crossed a hundred times with his boorish insults in this campaign-turned-reality TV show (actually a few hundred times just on Twitter according to a compendium logged by the New York Times - most recent chart below). The "politically correct" rationale that Trump uses to excuse his ugliness is anything but a rationale. It's an infantile evasion. There's nothing wrong with making a conscious effort to be decent toward other people. It's basic stuff. At least it's how I was raised. I actually thought it was an American value. Being cruel is just plain cruel. Ask Mrs. Trump.

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Of course, people violate this Golden Rule all the time. Because we're people. And we screw up. We lose our patience. We lose our tempers. We're human. But we're not running for president. We're not all volunteering to be role models for millions - the way a presidential candidate is the minute he or she announces an intention to lead the free world.

Trump won't be around forever, it'll just seem like it. The question I wonder about is whether the cacophonous Trump bell can be unrung when it comes to our political culture. Did he just cross the line in a way we have never even come close to seeing before - or did he erase that line altogether?

A master manipulator and master TV performer, somehow Trump got away with all of this. People will be writing and talking about it for years. But will that heretofore unspoken, minimum level of appropriateness and respect in the political public square still exist? At least to the degree we were just hanging onto the last vestiges of before Trump slithered into the ring - can we get it back?

This hustler's obnoxious braggadocio and non-sensical answers to serious questions may ultimately be characterized as inconsequential as long as he never obtains the power of the White House. But his dumbing down and decivilizing of the political process in 2016 may turn out to have far more lasting damage. It took a hell of a lot of Americans to let this all happen. It'll take even more of us to repair a political culture that was already vulnerable and susceptible to the disease that was Donald Trump.