Punditry, like most human occupations, depends on pattern recognition. Certain things happen regularly; other things rarely; others never. Probabilities emerge, assumptions are formed, scenarios are considered and ruled out.
And then a trauma happens, a black swan splashes down, and you lose all faith in everything you’ve learned.
This has been quite a year for traumas. Pope Francis keeps busting up Catholic punditry. Brexit busted up British punditry. And Donald Trump’s ascent has left almost everyone who writes about U.S. politics in a state of post-traumatic shock.
That trauma has us all suddenly considering the most unlikely of scenarios, a Trump presidency – which is a wise thing to consider. It is still very unlikely that Trump will be the next president of the United States, but there is real value in pondering the forces that might deliver him to victory, real value in entertaining the possibility that our politics have not yet reached Peak Weird.
But sometimes it’s worth returning to what we used to know about our politics and recalling once again what normalcy looks like. Today, before the first presidential debate is a good time for that exercise because there’s been so much gaming-out of how Trump might ambush Hillary Clinton, how he might manage expectations well enough to make a poor performance look like victory, that it’s easy to lose sight of the core truth: It will be ridiculous if Trump wins these debates.
Nobody wants to say this outright because it once seemed ridiculous to imagine that Trump could win the primary debates as well. But those debates were not like the debates that we’re about to watch; indeed, they were not really debates at all. They were more like the early episodes of a reality-television program – a genre that Trump knows very well – in which a host of would-be apprentices or survivors jostles for camera time and tries to stand out from the pack.
Even late in the primary season Trump never shared the stage with fewer than three other rivals, and mostly he was on stage with many more. And during all that time, he wasn’t really trying to debate those rivals; as James Fallows writes, he would go “into a kind of hibernation” whenever the conversation turned remotely substantive, and emerge to hurl insults and declaim his promises of greatness restored.
Meanwhile those rivals – as they themselves shamefacedly admitted later – weren’t really trying to compete with him, or at least not until the final few debates when the reality of what was happening finally forced their hands. (Save for John Kasich, who remained in a reality television show all his own till the end.)
So Trump has not yet done anything remotely like what he'll be asked to do tonight: stand there and argue with a seasoned politician about public policy for 90 minutes without any refuge or escape. Nor has he shown anything in the last few months to indicate that he’s cultivated the self-discipline necessary for this task. He remains true to himself – proudly ignorant, blustering and serially mendacious.
That mendacity has inspired some liberal agita about how the debate moderators should handle Trump’s penchant to lie more barefacedly than the average politician. But those anxieties are somewhat beside the point, given that there will already be someone on stage with every incentive to expose Trump as a liar and ample opportunity to do so.
Clinton is not a particularly appealing politician. But she is a solid and experienced debater who knows the workings of U.S. government inside and out. A careful, meticulous, unexciting performance, of the kind she has delivered in many debates before, should suffice to make her look wiser, safer and more serious than the tabloid character across the stage from her.
Trump has a rough genius for political combat, but he does not possess some secret magic to render her tongue-tied in the face of his insults, some deflector shield that will protect all of his obvious vulnerabilities against measured and effective attacks. And he enters these debates as a very well-known quantity, more than half of the country in fear of what his presidency will mean; there is no reason to think that many of those voters are primed to give him the benefit of the doubt.
A series of debates between a man proudly unprepared for the office of the presidency and a woman of Clinton’s knowledge and experience should produce a predictable outcome: She should win, and he should lose.
This is not a hot take. It is a cold take, a boring take, a take that assumes that the political world, even now, is still relatively rule-bound and predictable.
And if I’m wrong, if Hillary manages to throw the debates and the election to Trump, it will be the last such take I offer for many years to come.