They came, the 69 million, for a real-time reality show, to hear how Donald Trump could possibly defend that infamous "boys on the bus" afternoon with Billy Bush, the day of the Tic Tacs and the furniture shopping and -- let's be honest here -- the boasts of sexual assault.
But halfway through Sunday night's second presidential debate between the GOP's Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, America unexpectedly instead got a horror show that was almost unreal: A new threat by Trump to grab at the sanctity of one of the basic tenets of our national democracy.
In truth, the whole sordid and depressing night was the political equivalent of those cartoons you always see about human de-evolution, as the species slouches back toward our Neanderthal roots. In the very first-ever televised presidential debate in 1960, Richard Nixon said things about his opponent John F. Kennedy such as: "We both want to help the old people. We want to see that they do have adequate medical care. The question is the means." Last night, Trump said that Clinton "has tremendous hate in her heart." In 1976, then-President Gerald Ford caused an international uproar when he erroneously claimed that Poland was not under Soviet domination at that time. Last night, Trump boasted "I know nothing about Russia" -- and no one blinked.
In what's become America's Endless Summer of Trump, it's sure hard to get a rise out of folks anymore. In his desperate bid to change the conversation away from 2005 and Too Much Access Hollywood, the short-fingered vulgarian (has there ever been a better description?) trotted out several past sex-assault accusers of Bill Clinton, and then he emptied out his arsenal of anti-Hillary bombast as soon as the TV lights were turned on. It was beyond ugly, but he didn't cross over the line from threatening good taste to actually threatening the fundamentals of U.S. democracy until about 30 minutes in. That's when the subject of Clinton's private servers and her handling of her emails came up.
"I didn't think I'd say this and I'm going to say it and I hate to say it. … If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation because there has never been so many lies, so much deception," Trump said.
A moment later, Clinton said that "it's just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country." Shot back Trump: "Because you'd be in jail." A surprisingly large part of the gathering in St. Louis erupted in cheers -- a haunting reminder of the one memorable moment in the otherwise forgettable Star Wars Episode 3: "So this is how liberty dies...with thunderous applause."
The odd thing is that the moral peak of the Trump campaign (sort of like the highest elevation in the state of Florida, but I digress...) had come at the Republican convention in Cleveland when his rabid partisans chanted "lock her up" and Trump -- maybe seeing the phrase "ACT PRESIDENTIAL" inked on his palm -- instead said "let's defeat her in November." That fleeting moment of grace was less than three months ago; now Trump is completely outfitted in banana republic, a tinhorn-dictator-in-waiting.
Trump's groupies went wild at their hero's threat, posting their Hillary-in-prison memes up and down the corridors of cyberspace. But foreign policy wonks started instead thinking about war-torn, fragile African nations like the perhaps ironically named Democratic Republic of the Congo, where leaders routinely throw the leaders of opposition parties in jail.
I thought of the night six years when I drove up to Quakertown and watched Sarah Palin, the avatar of what would grow into Trumpism, tell boosters of a Christian school that "American exceptionalism is something that every generation has to be its own if we expect our Republic and our liberties to be secure and to live on." But if you really want to push the theory of American exceptionalism, that our Republic is different from any others, you need to start with something that's actually been pretty exceptional...so far. And that's the peaceful transfer of power: Our unbroken streak of presidential elections, every four years -- even in the midst of a civil war in 1864, and when some wanted Washington to assume dictatorial powers during the Great Depression in 1932 -- and our traditions of a) the losers accepting the results and b) the winners not seeking retribution.
Instead of making America great again, Trump wants a nation of crude and ever-bending laws, administered by a self-proclaimed "strongman." And millions of voters are along for the thrill ride.
Let's be clear: Presidents (famously, the above-mentioned, once magnanimous Richard Nixon) and would-be presidents (see "Edwards, John") can and occasionally should be charged with crimes. But historically, the American tradition is, if anything, to bend too far the other way in the name of national unity and conciliation. It's why Ford pardoned Nixon, and it's why President Obama, despite a wealth of evidence, didn't really pursue the Bush administration over torture. In the case of Hillary Clinton's email server, her actions were clearly wrong (and meant to hide information from the public, which I find troubling) but it was a lawman with deep ties to the previous Republican administration, the FBI's James Comey, who has already led a thorough probe and found no criminality.
Trump's proposed double jeopardy is just political retribution, down and dirty. It fits all too easily with his other Third-World-despot notions, like using the full force of the government to pursue critics in the press or banning arrivals to the U.S. based on a religious test.
But then, Sunday night's so-called "town hall" debate showed the many ways that Trump's reality-show drama has already hijacked much of what could have passed for a democratic election. Except for Ken Bone and that red sweater, the citizen questioners who were supposed to the stars of the debate were largely ignored. And Trump's outrageousness drowned out real issues (including climate change and the race-and-policing issues posed in Ferguson, just 10 miles from the debate site) and obscured a mediocre performance by Clinton, who blew off an important question on whether she has "public" and "private" positions on key issues by putting it all on Honest Abe Lincoln.
But the real danger is that by going nuclear Sunday night to solidify his standing with those 20-25 percent of Americans on the right who've bounced from the John Birch Society to the Moral Majority to the Tea Party to Making America Great Again, he's has ripped the very fabric of this nation in a way that cannot be repaired. Within 24 hours of his performance, Trump backers have been hitting the streets with signs like "Trump That Bitch" and twists on Trump's feline descriptions of the female anatomy.
And that's the real takeaway from Sunday's debate -- the scary one. Anyone who thinks they're waking up on November 9 and wiping this out of their eyes, like a 5 a.m. nightmare, is delusional. The impeachment calls from the far-right side of the House, the cries of a "rigged election," and all the fear and loathing that goes with that...is just getting started. Sunday's debate wasn't the end of anything...nor was it the beginning. Just a massive escalation in the war for America's mortal soul.