The increasingly popular term "Trump Anxiety" started going around back in January, when a Washington Post/ABC News poll reported that 69 percent of Americans were made to feel either very or somewhat anxious about the idea of Donald Trump becoming president. But that was January, before it became clear that the 69 percent in question were really just 690 people out of 1,001 in a telephone poll.
Since then, the Trump Anxiety index has been a ping-pong match, creeping up as his viability rises a few points, then down a few, relative to Hillary Clinton's perceived scandalousness, and in contrast to whichever inane, venal thing he said last.
On September 22, shortly after the one-two punch of Clinton's pneumonia and "basket of deplorables," and Trump's assertion that she lacks the "mental and physical stamina" to be president, NBC News/Wall Street Journal had her leading 43 percent to 37 percent.
On September 26, just before the first debate, FiveThirtyEight had Trump at 51.9 percent to Clinton's 48.1 percent. On October 11, just days after Trump's "grab them by the pussy" scandal (Twattergate? Iran Cuntra? G-Spot Dome?), Clinton was up 52 percent to 38 percent.
On November 1, after the news that the FBI may or may not be investigating e-mails that may or may not have had something to do with Clinton, nearly every major news outlet reported a 45 to 44 dead heat. The only disagreement was over who had the one-point advantage.
Knowing that these unscientific numbers represent the only hope of quantifying the great uncertainty of how our fellow Americans intend to vote, it's natural to obsessively follow them—even as their constant, low-level fluctuation makes you want to jump off a fucking bridge.
All the means of relieving the tension only compound it: People make jokes, express outrage, take imaginary stands, freak out, unfriend each other, troll perfect strangers on comment threads, delude themselves into thinking that voting for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein is an act of conscience and not one of spectacular credulity that disqualifies you from every grown-up discussion for the next 20 years...
And none of it changes the fact that Trump is still very much in the race for the presidency. And he could win. Intelligent people with an interest in seeming savvy have said otherwise:
"Trump's path to an electoral college victory isn't narrow, it's nonexistent," wrote the Washington Post on October 18. But on October 31, the same publication wrote, "Donald Trump has a path to victory again thanks to Florida."
Even if he doesn't win, the scary thing is that he could have. By this time next week, we'll most likely know whether or not he did. Whatever the outcome, if he wins, the victory will be called both inevitable and impossible, and everything will change forever.
If he loses, we'll heave a sigh of relief, smug pundits will say I told you he never had a chance, and this whole past year of unfunny jokes and impotent disgust will get filed away until the next unforeseeable nightmare we all should have seen coming comes along.
Either way, the berserk thing his campaign unlocked—a validation of the lowest imaginable road as a viable path to power and glory—isn't going anywhere. Ever. My only objection to the term "Trump Anxiety" is rhetorical: Anxiety is fear without an object. There's no shortage of objects in this scenario: his presidency, his followers, his bloodless children. Trump Anxiety isn't anxiety. It's fear. It's dread. And dread is a much harder tension to live with because you know exactly what you're dreading.
As Dr. Bernard Vittone, head of the National Center for the Treatment of Phobias, Anxiety and Depression, told the Washington Post, he sees about four patients a week who are "coming in scared, actually frightened, about a candidate winning an election. They may hate Clinton, but they're not scared of her. They may have hated Bush, they may have hated Obama, but they were never scared." He said he prescribes them antianxiety meds.
Another psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Bright of the Mayo Clinic, told the New York Times he's seeing a high incidence of patients who are "wondering how can I feel safe? Who will take care of us?" Bright confirmed the obsessive nature of the condition: "I see a lot of hypervigilance," he told the Times. "I hear of people checking fivethirtyeight.com three and four times a day to see if the numbers have shifted. It's exhausting to live with that level of constant anxiety. You carry that tension in your body and it wears you out."
It really does.
THE DEEPER DREAD
The horse race of fluctuating poll data is a distraction from the darker spectacle of this race. It's no secret that Donald Trump's strategy has always been to pander to the millions of Americans who will vote for anyone who isn't Hillary Clinton. Nor is it news that his chief tactic in that effort is a willingness to transform the racist, xenophobic subtext of every Republican presidential candidate since 1964 into literal racist, xenophobic campaign pledges. His capacity for shameless, irresponsible speech has energized the orc army that forms his electoral base, and fills everyone else with outrage, contempt, and a genuine sense of shock.
That's where the deeper dread resides. If Trump wins, it means there are more Americans who think reason and decency are reflected by the ideas he pretends to stand for—contempt for women as a first principle; religious, racial, and ethnic bigotry; a combination of bellicosity and isolationism; open disdain for the less-fortunate; blazingly intentional ignorance about science, history, and economics—than there are who believe those words mean what they actually mean.
Or used to mean.
The deepest dread of all arises from the suspicion that your direct perception of empirical reality is at odds with the prevailing sensibility of everyone around you. How else to describe that nauseated feeling you felt when you first heard applause and cheers following the preposterous shit he says? How else can you reconcile these three irreconcilable facts: (1) He invented that joke about building a wall between the United States and Mexico, (2) you alternately chuckled and scoffed at the audacious stupidity of the symbolism, and (3) they ROARED their approval.
It's clear that Trump's candidacy is a wake-up call to the Urban Archipelago—the linked chain of cities that serve as bastions of liberal sanity—that the rest of America is still motivated by terrible ideas and dangerous ignorance. (We first noted the existence of the Urban Archipelago to console ourselves when George W. Bush got reelected; if Trump wins, count on an update.) His political existence is a rejoinder to the overwhelming momentum of progressive and liberal values in American social and cultural life over the past 25 years. No, the work isn't close to finished. But if Trump is elected, it will be. He is the price we pay for having elected President Barack Obama, but also for having elected President (Bill) Clinton.
The most revolting thing about Trump's rise is that neither he nor his constituency (or, wait, he's a TV star, so that should be his "fan base") is particularly concerned with whether or not he believes any of what he says. His appeal lies in his willingness to address them directly. When he accepted the nomination of the party he had previously eviscerated, he said, "I will be your voice," and a chill went through the soul of everyone watching, except for all the people who thought, felt, and screamed, "Yes, you can."
Sometimes "your voice" is just hateful rhetoric. Sometimes it's blatant lies. In all cases, it is distinguished primarily by the fact that no other major politician has the gall to say what Trump will say. His racist rhetoric is less disturbing than the fact that he only talks that way to appeal to the racist element in his crowd. To be a racist is awful. To be willing to act like one to curry favor with racists is unforgivable. This tactic represents the ultimate elevation of the shamelessness that has made reality TV the dominant art form of the 21st century.
The emotions stirred up by Trump's rise from novelty candidate to viable presidential possibility outweigh even the familiar response to patently horrible people in powerful positions. Recall the surges and declines of the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, Newt Gingrich's Contract with/on America, the Tea Party, and the overall Republican strategy of replacing legislative process with permanent obstruction? In all those cases, the disappointment over their victories was outweighed by an even stronger desire to fight back in whatever puny way was available (voting, writing, arguing, thinking), to be on the right side of their transgressions against reason and morality, and not allow their voices to prevail.
Trump makes you feel like you're fighting against the absence of reason, the ghost of ideology, a moral desert. He champions humankind's lowest impulses—self-interest, cheapness of spirit, brutality. On paper, these things all seem like they'd be easy to fight against. But it's so obvious that he doesn't mean any of it, it shames the convictions of the people doing the fighting. (Just as Hillary Clinton was demeaned just by having to debate him.)
His campaign has already raised the bar of cynicism in national politics to a height no one even knew existed before. His victory would mean that the office itself has been so substantially devalued that it will never again be possible to regard it with even the illusion of respect.
This matters only if you're willing to concede that it also matters who the president is.
I guess we'll find out Wednesday.
And then we can pretend it's all over. Which it never, ever will be.