This nuclear election booms to an end

On the day after Labor Day 16 years ago, The New York Times ran a story providing crucial information to the U.S. public – which is what The New York Times did in those days – informing them that their lives were about to change.

“Labor Day is the unofficial opening of the general election campaign,” the paper declared.

The unofficial OPENING of the general election campaign?

You mean all those prior months were just preseason warmup? They were something that only insiders and those with narrow lives of limited interest – the candidates, campaign staffs and press corps, in other words – were really supposed to care about?

In the old days, presidential campaigns began this week.

Why the change?

As political campaigns have grown more and more expensive, they have had to start earlier and earlier to separate the electorate from its money by begging for campaign dollars.

As political campaigns have grown more and more complex, more data-driven, more dependent on demographic analysis, they have had to start earlier and earlier to lock up those technical experts who actually understand how to gather and interpret vast clouds of information.

But it was in this current presidential campaign, the campaign of 2015-16, when things really exploded. If past campaigns have been cherry bombs, the current one is a thermonuclear explosion.

It is an explosion with a name: Donald Trump. And he has changed everything.

First and foremost, Trump is entertaining. It may be the kind of entertainment that causes some people to say, “That’s not funny! That’s sick!” But still, on a certain level, it’s showbiz.

Ordinary people who had never turned on their TVs to watch a primary debate suddenly found themselves watching to see what group Trump was attacking now (Mexicans, Muslims, POWs) or those he failed to attack (white supremacists) or just what wacky comments he was going to make next about multibillion-dollar walls to keep Mexicans out or how he wouldn’t release his tax returns.

He was Donald Trump, and even though he had never performed a day of public service – Ike at least had won World War II – so what? He could do whatever he wanted to do.

He was not some phony-baloney candidate put together by a committee and run by his staff. He was, for better or worse, himself. He was Popeye.

“I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.”

Trump is what he is. But he is not alone. He is the champion of the extreme right of American politics, the alt-right, described by that source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, as “associated with white nationalism, white supremacism, antisemitism, right-wing populism, nativism, and the neoreactionary movement.”

As highly respected political analyst Charlie Cook wrote recently, “simply put, the Republican base has gotten so exotic in their views that it is little wonder that they are becoming isolated from the broader electorate and have picked someone who is trailing a very weak Democratic nominee.”

So Hillary Clinton is “very weak” but against Trump “very weak” may be good enough to win.

Maybe. Weakness is not usually a good selling point for a presidential candidate. And on Labor Day in Ohio, Clinton, fighting off a bad cough and throat condition – “Every time I think about Trump, I get allergic,” she told the crowd – turned up the heat with a barrage of one-liners:

“Friends don’t let friends vote for Trump.”

“He’s driven hardworking people into bankruptcy.”

“His most famous words are ‘You’re fired.’”

“He makes empty promises and racial attacks.”

“He is temperamentally unfit and totally unqualified to be president.”

Trump has his rejoinders:

“Unstable Hillary, she lacks the judgment, temperament and moral character to lead this country.”

“She’s really pretty close to unhinged. ... You’ve seen it a couple of times. ... People in the background know it. The people that know her know it. And she’s like an unbalanced person.”

“In one way, she’s a monster. ... In another way, she’s a weak person. She’s actually not strong enough to be president.”

How much more of this can we take? We’ve taken more than 525 days so far, and we still have about 60 to go.

The result will depend largely on how much of this stuff we can believe.

When American tourists came back home from their summer vacations recently, many said essentially the same thing about our current election: “The whole world is watching, and they are scared to death.”