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OPINION

An election of the lesser angels of our nature

David Shribman

The final debate now in the swiftly receding past, the final balloting now swiftly approaching, the banalities and bathos now reaching their inevitable but welcome ends, we see clearly what this election is about, both its process and its politics.

The ultimate disrupter now has a limited amount of time to disrupt the process that has given him the Republican presidential nomination but now threatens to deny him the ultimate prize. The consummate curator of the conventional now faces the limited challenge of running out the clock on an election that once seemed hers to lose, then seemed determined to assure she would lose, and now seems within her grasp.

In sports terms, we have the two-minute drill against a “prevent” defense. In music terms, we have a master of the scat line against a virtuoso of the sonata-allegro form. Manhattan businessman Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are struggling to produce, and to prevent, a surprise symphony.

Consider Trump’s background: a businessman, albeit with a showman’s flair. Whether on Wall Street or Main Street or on the downtown streets and coastal resorts from Bay Street in Toronto to Ocean Boulevard in Palm Beach, the business executive ordinarily prizes stability — and yet Mr. Trump is the personification of disruption.

Now consider Clinton’s background: from the New England afternoons of her anti-war activism to the Commencement morning of her Wellesley education to her stereotype-smashing years as first lady in the governor’s mansion in Little Rock and in the White House. Always, until now, she has been the sworn enemy of the status quo — and yet in this race she is the personification of an ancient regime.

There has never been a general-election campaign remotely like this.

In tone and timbre, in insults and importations, Trump and Clinton have shattered the pattern. No one — not even the combatants themselves — can admire the depths to which this campaign has descended, tarnishing our political system even as both weary warriors argue that it merely reflects it. Whether this proves to be the road not taken in the future will make for all the difference in the future of our politics.

But now the more immediate path ahead seems clear. The disrupter has one more disruption to create — in the narrative, and then in the momentum, of this race. The conventional candidate must preserve the motion and rhythm of the campaign. Here the businessman is the provocateur. Here the agitator has the stake in the status quo.

All this was on display in Wednesday night’s debate and in the combat that followed. Trump taunted her by declaring, “Such a nasty woman.” Clinton characterized his refusal to say he would accept the verdict of the election as “horrifying.” He accused her of “criminal intrigue.” She suggested he was a “puppet.”

This has been a campaign not of great mobilizations across established fronts but instead of improvised explosive devices — and we may look back on this moment in our national passage either as a diversion or (and here we apply a phrase only employed in regret, never in celebration) the new normal.

In transition are the party alignments (blue-collar voters to the Republican nominee, a patina of elitism to the Democratic coalition); the traditional forms of presidential politics (with party loyalists rallying behind the nominee); the language of politics (Clinton said her rival “choked” in his late-summer visit to Mexico, Trump said his opponent “shouldn’t be allowed to run” because she was “guilty of a very, very serious crime”); the content of politics (whether one candidate was a physical abuser of women and whether the other was an intimidator of women); and the conduct of debates themselves (interruptions, menacing background movements).

Some of these elements are of substantial political moment; if, for example, the Democrats are fleeing their New Deal heritage, and if the Republicans are adopting a fresh appeal to working Americans, we may be witnessing a landmark turning point.

But we also may be witnessing merely the coarsening of our culture — and the further diminution of our politics. The newest Rasmussen Reports survey indicates that half of likely American voters say they will be selecting the lesser of two evils.

It is an election of the lesser angels of our nature.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.