No More Business as Usual, Mr. Trump He has to abandon his company in order to deal on the country’s behalf.

The other day I experienced a flash of alarm. There was a claim from an Argentine journalist that when the president of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, phoned Donald Trump to congratulate him on his election victory, the talk turned to permits for the building of a Trump skyscraper in Buenos Aires. Mr. Macri’s press officer quickly and sharply denied the report: “They didn’t talk about the tower at all. It’s absolutely untrue.” So did the Trump transition office. The journalist apparently offered no proof. The story more or less ended there.

But what alarmed me was this question: Does Donald Trump know he can’t ever have a conversation like this? Does he fully understand that a president can never use the office, its power and influence, for his own financial enrichment? That he can’t, however offhandedly, both do business and be president? That future and credible reports that he had engaged in such a conflict of interest would doom his presidency? And that solving the question of his businesses and their relation to his presidency is urgent?

Donald J. TrumpThis week, in an interview with the New York Times, Mr. Trump was not reassuring. When pressed on how, exactly, he means to distance himself from his business interests, he couldn’t stop himself from promoting a few of them: “We just opened a beautiful hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue,” he said. “The brand is certainly a hotter brand.”

“In theory, I can be president of the United States and run my business 100%,” he said, adding that he is “phasing that out now.” “In theory I don’t have to do anything. But I would like to do something. I would like to try and formalize something, because I don’t care about my business.”

He said, “I’ve greatly reduced meetings with contractors, meetings with different people.” Thank goodness for that. He’s the president-elect.

He noted that presidents are exempt from conflict-of-interest laws, but “I understand why the president can’t have a conflict of interest now because everything a president does in some ways is like a conflict of interest, but I have—I’ve built a very great company and it’s a big company and it’s all over the world. People are starting to see, when they look at all these different jobs, like in India and other things, No. 1, a job like that builds great relationships with the people of India, so it’s all good.” Business partners come in, they want a picture, “I think it’s wonderful to take a picture.”

Might he sell his businesses? “That’s a very hard thing to do, you know what, because I have real estate.” Selling real estate isn’t like selling a stock. “I don’t care about my company. I mean, if a partner comes in from India or if a partner comes in from Canada, where we did a beautiful big building that just opened, and they want to take a picture and come into my office, and my kids come in and I originally made the deal with these people, I mean what am I going to say? ‘I’m not going to talk to you,’ ‘I’m not going to take pictures’?”

Yes, that’s exactly what you say! I’m not going to pose with you because I will soon be president of the United States and the prestige of that office precludes taking the picture you’ll soon use in your brochure.

In the interview Mr. Trump was not defensive—he was garrulous, forthcoming as to his thought processes, and yet he seemed curiously unaware as to the urgency of the subject.

If he is not aware it is crucial, the reason may come down to five words: the habits of a lifetime.

For half a century Donald Trump has devoted all his professional energies to money, profit, the deal. That is how he thinks: It’s his deepest neural pathway. He’s a free-market capitalist who started with a lot and turned it into more. He created jobs, employs many. Good! But that’s his mind: money, profit, the deal. He has brought up his children to enter his business. Whatever else they do, they have surely absorbed the family ethos.

And now, for the first time in his life, money, profit, the deal is not his job.

He will be president of the United States. He can’t help the family business as president. He can’t help his children make a living as president.

He has to be losing money as president and putting personal profit motives behind him. Which means putting the ways and habits of a lifetime behind him.

Because he’s entered something much bigger: the presidency. History. The welfare of the republic.

That’s his job now, and it requires sacrifice.

I don’t know if there’s anyone around him who can convince him that the attitude with which he’s operated for 50 years must end, and something wholly new and different begin.

But whoever does must be aware of this:

The press, which wants to kill him, is going to zero in on his biggest weak spot: money, profit, the deal. Democrats too will watch like hawks. And this is understandable! Presidents shouldn’t ever give the impression things aren’t on the up and up. And Mr. Trump campaigned saying he’d dismantle the rigged system, drain the swamp, fight the racket.

The press does not believe, not for a second, and Democrats do not believe, not for a second, that Mr. Trump will be able to change the habits of a lifetime. They are relying on it.

Mr. Trump shocked them by winning. He should shock them now with rectitude.

Financial sophisticates know and explain how complicated all this is. Mr. Trump can’t establish a blind trust because blind trusts normally consist of stocks, bonds—liquid assets. Mr. Trump’s wealth is in famous entities, in his brand. He knows where his buildings are, his past and current deals are.

He said when campaigning that if elected he’d turn the business over to his children. But that would require never talking to them about matters touching on the central family ethos: money, profit, the deal.

The editorial page of this newspaper offered a sound though difficult route: Mr. Trump should liquidate his stake in his company and put the proceeds in a true blind trust, in which the Trump children keep the assets in their name. He can “transfer more to them as long as he pays a hefty gift tax.” A fire sale on real estate would no doubt be seized upon by buyers like Donald Trump—people looking for the greatest asset at the lowest price. But it’s hard to see how any other plan would help Mr. Trump avoid endless accusations that he is enriching himself as president, that he is, in fact, a dopey kleptocrat who can’t help doing what he does.

It would be a painful act, selling the business he loves and around which he has ordered his life. But there would be comfort in this: In doing the right thing, in denying his opponents a sword, in enhancing his stature and demonstrating that yes, he will sacrifice for his country.

That’s pretty great comfort.

You’ve made your money. Now go be a patriot.

What to Tell Your Children About Trump We are the world’s oldest democracy, we are good people, and we’ve been through shocks before.

Eight points and two anecdotes as we continue to digest this astounding election.

You don’t know a tree is hollow until you push hard against it and it falls. The establishments of both parties did not know, a year ago, that they were hollow trees. They thought themselves strong because they always had been, and people think what has been true will continue. Then suddenly the tree is pushed and falls. To me that is the symbol, the image of 2016: the hollowed trees and how easily they fell.

Election night 2016 was not like 1980. That year produced an outcome fully within the political norms: a former two-term governor won the presidency. This year’s outcome went beyond all previous norms. Twenty-sixteen was like nothing in our lifetimes. In the future people will say, “Where were you that election night?” the way they do for other epochal moments.

In the classroomMuch of the mainstream, legacy media continues its self-disgrace. Having failed to kill Donald Trump’s candidacy they will now aim at his transition. Soon they will try to kill his presidency. Any journalists who are judicious toward Trump, who treat him fairly or even as a human being, are now accused of “normalizing” him. This is a manipulation: It is a way of warning your colleagues to approach the president-elect with the proper hostility or be scorned. None of this will do our country any good.

The left is in enraged mourning. A better way forward would be: reflect, absorb, gather your strength as the opposition, constructively oppose. Lose the hissing rancor. Use that energy to rebuild your party.

Right now 60 million people are very happy, and hopeful. They haven’t taken to the streets in elation, so we can’t see them. They haven’t broken car windows in their joy. Respect their happiness.

This is my fear: The question we ask after every national election is, “Can we come together?” The question this year is more, “Do we even want to come together?” Have the two nations within our nation reached a point of permanent estrangement? If the cultural left eases up and the economic right loosens up, maybe things can be soothed.

I think many people intuitively sense this: The Trump era either really will work or really won’t. It’s going to be something good or a disaster, but it won’t be a middling thing.

This big, burly country can take it either way. The proper attitude now? Give him a chance, watch close, wish well. Cheer what’s sound, criticize what isn’t.

And this: trust America.

Five days after the election I met an Ethiopian immigrant on a street in Washington. We got to talking. He spoke of how bad it was in his old country, all the killing. He’d been here 15 years. “I love America,” he said. “It gave everything to me.” But he was deeply concerned by the election. He has two sons, 8 and 6. The younger got up Wednesday morning, saw the TV and burst into tears. Trump won! The boy calls Trump “the mouth man.” How could a bully be president? “He wept,” said the Ethiopian. “How do I explain it to him?”

I thought. Finally I said, “Tell him to trust America.” Tell him that we are the world’s oldest democracy, that we are a good people, that we’ve been through shocks and surprises, and that we have checks and balances. “If it turns out good,” I said, “we’ll be happy. If it turns out really bad, America has a way of making your stay in the White House not too long. But tell him to trust America as you did, and it gave you everything.”

He said he’d tell his son that. We warmly shook hands.

This isn’t the first story of frightened children I’ve heard since the election. It’s the third. When I told it to a friend, also foreign-born, and so America-loving that he chokes up when he quotes past presidents, he told me that his 5-year-old woke up after the election and sobbed at the news.

Trump supporters feel that the left did this, demonizing Mr. Trump and making him monstrous. There’s some truth in that. But even truer is that Mr. Trump himself scared the children of America for a solid year with his loud ways and rough manner—“the mouth man.”

What a great thing it would be if Donald Trump would take a day off from the presidential transition, go to a series of schools, bring the press, and speak to children, telling them that he has nothing in his heart but the desire to do good and help people. “I have children and even grandchildren,” he might say. “I love them. I will do my best, and I love you.”

Mr. Trump’s people seem to me right now proud, exhausted and painfully aware that they emerged victorious despite the daily pummeling from the establishment and elite media. No one gave them a break.

And they’re right. It was that way.

But it’s not sissy-ish to respect peoples’ anxieties. It doesn’t legitimize your foes’ criticisms to show sensitivity. All presidents since Washington, “the father of our country,” have been seen as a national father figure. It grates on conservatives to think like that. It grates on me. But that’s inevitable for kids who see the president on TV all the time in an un-parented country.

They need to see a little gentleness and good intent. Their parents would appreciate it. And it’s needed before the inauguration. Impressions will have hardened by then.

I end with a related personal note. I never interviewed Donald Trump throughout this year’s campaign. From the beginning he reminded me of men I grew up with, Trumps with no money—loud, unsmooth, rough opinions. Where you came from and who you were surrounded by has a bearing on your loyalties and can bend your thinking. I judged that I’d see Mr. Trump most clearly from a middle distance. So I didn’t go, talk, interview. Six weeks ago I called a Trump staffer I’d interviewed to check a quote. She returned my call from Trump Force One. We spoke, and then suddenly the phone seemed to drop and I heard, “Who’s that?” Then I heard, “Peggy, this is Donald.”

I won’t quote exactly what was said. No one put it off the record, but it felt off the record, and some of the conversation was personal. But I can describe it. He was dignified, hilarious and modest. He told me that I’d sometimes been unfair to him, sometimes mean, sometimes really, really mean, but that when I was he usually deserved it, always appreciated it, and keep it up. He spoke of other things; he characterized for me my career.

I’d heard of his charm offensive, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say how charming, funny and frank he was—and, as I say, how modest. How actually humble.

It moved me. And it hurt to a degree a few weeks later when I wrote in this space that “Sane Donald Trump” would win in a landslide but that the one we had long seen, the crazed, shallow one, wouldn’t, and didn’t deserve to.

Is it possible there are deeper reserves of humility, modesty and good intent lurking around in there than we know? And maybe a toolbox, too, that can screw those things together and produce something good?

Where there’s life, there’s hope. He’s lively. Let’s hope.

But whatever happens, trust America. She has a way of weathering through.

What Comes After the Uprising President-elect Trump needs to reassure the country, including those who opposed him.

Sometimes there comes a crack in Time itself.
Sometimes the earth is torn by something blind. . . .
Call it the mores, call it God or Fate . . .
That force exists and moves.
And when it moves
It will employ a hard and actual stone
To batter into bits an actual wall
And change the actual scheme of things.
—Stephen Vincent Benét, “John Brown’s Body”

President Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump for transition planning in the Oval Office, Nov. 10.

President Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump for transition planning in the Oval Office, Nov. 10.

Hand it to him, the hard and actual stone who changed the actual scheme.

There were actually many stones, some 60 million, but Donald Trump did it, battering not just the famous blue wall but a wall of elites and establishments and their expectations.

The moment for me that will never be forgotten:

I was in a busy network green room late on election night. We were scrolling down, noting margins in various battlegrounds, looking for something definitive. Then someone read aloud from his phone: “AP calls it—Donald Trump elected president of the United States.” There was quiet for just a moment. I wrote in my notes “2:32 a.m., 11/9/16.” Soon we went into the newsroom for a panel, and I said what I thought, again from my notes: “We have witnessed something epochal and grave. It is the beginning of a new era whose shape and form are not clear, whose personnel and exact direction are unknown. But something huge and incalculable has occurred. God bless our beloved country.”

I am not one of those who knew how the evening would end. I saw Hillary Clinton winning for all the usual reasons. Now the usual reasons are pretty much out the window.

But some things should be said:

First, our democratic republic is vibrant and alive. It is not resigned. It is still capable of delivering a result so confounding it knocks you into the next room.

Nobody rigged this. Nobody hacked it. There weren’t brawls at polling places, there was kindness and civility. At the 92nd Street Y I got to embrace three neighbors. All this in a highly charged, highly dramatic and divisive election. We did our democratic work and then went home. It all worked.

Second, Donald Trump said he had a movement and he did. This is how you know. His presidential campaign was bad—disorganized, unprofessional, chaotic, ad hoc. There was no state-of-the-art get-out-the-vote effort—his voters got themselves out. There was no high-class, high-tech identifying of supporters—they identified themselves. They weren’t swayed by the barrage of brilliantly produced ads—those ads hardly materialized. This was not a triumph of modern campaign modes and ways. The people did this. As individuals within a movement.

It was a natural, self-driven eruption. Which makes it all the more impressive and moving. And it somehow makes it more beautiful that few saw it coming.

On the way home Wednesday morning I thought of my friend who runs the neighborhood shoe-repair shop. He is elderly, Italian-American, an immigrant. I had asked him last winter who would win the Republican nomination and he looked at me as if I were teasing. “Troomp!” he instructed. I realized at that moment: In America now only normal people can see the obvious. Everyone else is lost in a data-filled fog.

That was true right up to the end.

Those who come to this space know why I think what happened, happened. The unprotected people of America, who have to live with Washington’s policies, rebelled against the protected, who make and defend those policies and who care little if at all about the unprotected. That broke bonds of loyalty and allegiance. Tuesday was in effect an uprising of the unprotected. It was part of the push-back against detached elites that is sweeping the West and was seen most recently in the Brexit vote.

But so much depends upon the immediate moment. Mr. Trump must move surely now. When you add up the votes of Mrs. Clinton, Jill Stein,Gary Johnson and others, you get roughly 52%. Between 47% and 48% voted for Mr. Trump. It was an enormous achievement but a close-run thing, and precarious.

The previous 16 months were, for the Trump campaign, the victory project. What has to begin now is the reassurance project. The Democratic Party is in shock but will soon recover. Mainstream media, tired and taken aback, will reorient soon. Having targeted Mr. Trump in the campaign, they won’t be letting up now. Firing will quickly commence.

There is something I have seen very personally the past few days. The impolite way to put it is the left believed its own propaganda. The polite way is that having listened to Mr. Trump on the subjects of women and minorities, etc., they sincerely understand Mr. Trump and Trumpism to be an actual threat to their personal freedom. Trump supporters are overwhelmingly citizens of good will and patriotic intent who never deserved to be deplored as racist, sexist, thuggish. But some were not so benign or healthy.

The past few days I’ve heard from a young man who fears Jews will be targeted and told me of Muslim friends now nervous on the street. There was the beautiful lady with the blue-collar job who, when asked how she felt about the election, told me she is a lesbian bringing up two foreign-born adopted children and fears she will be targeted and her children somehow removed from her.

Many fear they will no longer be respected. They need to know things they rely on are still there. They don’t understand what has happened, and are afraid. They need—and deserve—reassurance. Trump apparatus: Find a way.

The president-elect should make a handful of appointments quickly, briskly, with an initial emphasis on old hands and known quantities. Ideological foes need not be included but accomplished Washington figures, especially those from previous administrations, should be invited in. It is silly to worry that Mr. Trump’s supporters will start to fear he’s gone establishment. They believe in him, are beside themselves with joy, and will understand he’s shoring up his position and communicating stability.

Third, there are former officials and true experts with esteemed backgrounds who need to be told: Help him.

They wouldn’t advise him during the campaign because of the stigma he carried as a barbarian and likely loser. It might damage their stature. Better to watch him go down to defeat and continue their career as big brains in exile.

But that’s over.

A Trump administration will be populated by three kinds of people: loyalists, opportunists and patriots.

The loyalists earned their way. “To the victor belong the spoils.” Back a long shot for president, and you’ll get a midlevel office in the Executive Office Building. The opportunists have a place in every administration—they spy an opening, have a friend who has a friend, wind up as undersecretary to the assistant secretary. That’s life among the humans, especially the political humans.

It is the patriots who matter, many of whom kept away from Mr. Trump in the past. They are needed now. They have heft, wisdom, experience and insight.

Donald Trump doesn’t know how to be president. He isn’t a reader of the presidency. He’s never held office. There’s little reason to believe he knows how to do this.

The next president needs you. This is our country. Help him.

Democracy’s Majesty and 2016’s Indignity After Tuesday, life will go on, and things are so bad they almost have to get better.

VotingThinking about Election Day I realized how much I miss the majesty of the old voting procedures. You used to go into a tall booth and stand alone and no one could see you vote. The booth was enclosed by dark curtains. You entered and pulled a big metal lever and it closed the curtain behind you. You faced long rows of candidate names with a metal toggle switch next to each. You could put your finger on the toggle and hesitate, or you could smack it down like it was a nail and you were a hammer. There was a satisfying little click. I used to take my little boy and explain what we were doing and why it was important. When you were all done you’d pull the big metal lever again, and that would lock in your vote (you hoped—America has always been full of mischief) and the curtain would open with a whoosh and you’d emerge, a citizen who’d done a citizen’s noble work. Pretty much everyone voted on Election Day itself so it was a communal experience. You saw your neighbors.

Now it is some of the neighbors and little majesty, cheap desks in a busy room with anyone walking by and you standing there like a mook, marking a paper. No click, no whoosh, and the desks have sides but it doesn’t feel so much like a secret ballot now, and it doesn’t have the old dignity.

I can hear you saying, “What does?”

*   *   *

Someone is going to win Tuesday and then, if trendlines that have proved reliable in the past continue, the sun will come up on Wednesday. (We claim this with a 3% margin of error.) We’ll go forward. We’re in a hard time and we’ll get through it. The country isn’t just split but unhappy with its choices and pessimistic as to its political future. Twenty sixteen was both the result of and a reckoning with what hasn’t worked the past 15 years. We’ll have to spend the next few years trying to get things in order and figure out how to create a better political reality.

A memory that stays with me is a college student down South who in September asked me if the young, experiencing national politics for the first time this year, should feel despair. No, I said, you should be inspired. You’re not even out of school yet and you can do better than this. All of you will have to set yourselves to saving us. It got a laugh but I meant it, and the audience knew.

How did we get here? How did we get two candidates so widely disliked and disrespected? In broad strokes:

Donald Trump didn’t break one of our two great and ancestral political parties. He won the nomination because the Republican Party was already broken, and those responsible for the party, the elected officials and thinkers, didn’t know. Now they do. Soon they will begin that stage of political mourning known as the symposia process. They’ll discuss how to repair, renew, keep the party together. Or the party will, over the next few cycles, split apart.

Donald Trump doesn’t happen in a more or less united party, he happens in a broken one. As he rose there were essays saying what was happening with the Republicans was the result of a too-great reliance on the thinking and ways of the party’s old, victorious past. There is some truth to that. You can’t be the Democratic Party of 1980 operating from the playbook of 1940. Republicans of 2016 can’t live off the modes and approaches of 1980.

But the split in the party happened in the past 15 years. When you give a party two unwon wars, one a true foreign-policy catastrophe, and a great recession, it will begin to break because its members lose confidence in its leaders. When the top of the party believes in things that the bottom of the party doesn’t want (on immigration, entitlements and trade), things will break further. The bottom will begin to feel the top no longer cares about it. That will end their loyalty. Mr. Trump’s Republican foes are wrong in thinking his followers are just sticking with the party. They’re not, they’ve broken from the party.

In such circumstances the base of a party will do surprising things, such as turn, in hopeful desperation, to a strange outsider in hopes maybe he can break through the mess.

Hillary Clinton’s candidacy results from webs and arrangements—the big name, the big money, the old relationships, the air of inevitability. She is the nominee because the Democratic Party, which used to fight about great issues of war and peace, of the deeper meaning of foreign and domestic policy—it was a vital thing—is now kept together by one central organizing principle: the brute acquisition of power, and holding on to that power no matter what. The worst members of the party appear to care almost nothing about what that power is used for, how it will be wielded to achieve higher purposes. They’re just making a living. They’re just on a team. It is Madison’s fear of the destructive effects of “faction” taken to the nth degree. You see this in the hacked emails of John Podesta. The spirit of the emails I’ve seen is of back-scratching, networking, favor pleading.

The Democratic Party and its lobbyist/think-tank/journalistic establishment in Washington have long looked to me to be dominated by people devoted mostly to getting themselves in the best professional position and their kids into Sidwell Friends School. They want to be part of the web, the arrangement. They want to have connections, associates, a tong. They want to be wired in. They don’t want to be I.F. Stone, alone, reading the fine print of obscure government documents. And Clintonism—for years the biggest web, the securest source of money, a real tong with enforcers and reward-dispensers—has long been a sound route to all of this. You may have to bend rules to be part of it, accept unsavory deals and characters, but it is warm and cozy in there.

One thing I saw this year was that sincere conservatives wholly opposed to socialism had real respect for Bernie Sanders because they saw his sincerity. He wasn’t part of the web and they honored him for it.

Both parties have their webs. Maybe this year begins the process by which they will be burned away.

A closing thought: God is in charge of history. He asks us to work, to try, to pour ourselves out to make things better. But he is an actor in history also. He chastises and rescues, he intervenes in ways seen and unseen. Or chooses not to.

Twenty sixteen looks to me like a chastisement. He’s trying to get our attention. We have candidates we can’t be proud of. We must choose among the embarrassments. What might we be doing as a nation and a people that would have earned this moment?

The Great Disappointment of 2016 ‘Raise your hand if this describes you: . . . I don’t like either candidate.’ All 12 hands went up.

I didn’t include last week what I thought was the most vexing question of 2016. I cut it for space, thinking it was a little off point, or at least not pressing, and could be explored down the road. I had asserted that Donald Trump was a nut but that a sane Trump could have won in a landslide. The vexing question: Could a non-nutty Trump have broken through, captured the imagination and indignation of Republicans and many Democrats, won the nomination?

What struck me after the column was the number of angry Trump supporters who told me that I didn’t get it—he may act like a nut but he had to be crazy to break through. He had to be a flame-haired rebuke to the establishment. He in fact had to be a living insult—no political experience, rude, crude ways—to those who’ve failed us. He had to leave you nervous, on the edge of your seat. Only that man could have broken through. Crazy was a feature, not a bug. (The assumption seemed to be he could turn crazy on and off. I believe he has demonstrated he can’t.)

Failed!Clearly, a lot of people have been thinking about the vexing question. My question now is: What does its answer tell us about our political future? A hopeful answer is that Mr. Trump was a reaction to the careful, empty, consultant-crafted insincerity of the past, and next cycle’s candidate will be a reaction to the mad, hypercharged, undirected electricity of this one.

What is the non-hopeful answer?
More Declarations

Imagine a Sane Donald Trump Oct. 20, 2016
America’s Decadent Leadership Class Oct. 13, 2016
The Kaine Impunity Oct. 6, 2016
The Politics of ‘The Shallows’ Sept. 29, 2016

What I’m thinking about this week is a focus group led by Peter Hart, the veteran Democratic pollster, Tuesday night, in Charlotte, N.C., still a toss-up state. Present were a dozen late-decider voters, three Democrats, six Republicans and three independents.

What struck me about the group wasn’t its new insights, which were few. What was powerful was its averageness, its confirmation of what you’ve already observed. The members weren’t sad, precisely, but they were unillusioned. They were seeing things with clean eyes and they were disappointed. They wanted a candidate they could trust and believe in.

Which when you think about it shouldn’t be too much to ask.

Raise your hand, said Mr. Hart, if you like both candidates. No one did. Raise your hand if you like one candidate. No one did. Raise if you don’t like either. All 12 did.

When asked to describe the America they want, they wrote things like “a solid education system,” “no longer at war,” “people have joy in their work,” “leading the world in everything, including morals,” “equal opportunity and reward based on work,” “people haven’t lost their homes” and “a culture that improves us as a people.”

Many of their hopes were communal, societal, not individual. A great instructive lesson for conservatives this year is that Margaret Thatcher’s individualist vision, expressed with the words “There’s no such thing as society,” has given way, or rather shifted weight. The individual is key and crucial, but everyone is worried about our society and culture now; they see the nation as a shared entity with shared problems. It reminds me of something I meant to write in 2012 and never did. When Mitt Romney would walk around talking about “competitiveness” and “opportunity,” he came across to me like a doctor walking into an old-fashioned hospital ward with bed after bed of people in heavy casts and head bandages. Dr. Romney walks in with “competition!” and “47%,” and they’re roused all right—they rise and throw their crutches at his head and chase him from the ward.

Mr. Hart asked: Will the next generation be better off? No one raised a hand. This is not news; it’s been a cliché since the crash of 2008. You get used to the data: Americans no longer assume their children will have it better than they did. But it was striking to see these dozen thoughtful people keep their hands down.

Asked what has been lost in America, one respondent said security for kids: “They can’t just go out and play.” “Innocence for kids,” said another. Parents no longer feel the world, even the immediate one, is a safe place.

What is missing in America? “A freshness,” said a middle aged man. He went on to speak of the 1950s, “Ozzie and Harriet,” when things seemed newer somehow and assumptive of progress.

Is America off track? They all nodded. A woman said you can’t pray in schools anymore. By this she seemed to mean that religious practice, which among other things offers guidelines and guardrails, is no longer officially sanctioned or encouraged. A man ruminated that things seemed to go off track after 9/11 and “never quite recovered.”

Mr. Hart asked about how they see the 2016 campaign in historical terms. A man who appeared to be in his 30s said it was “like a soldier going to Vietnam,” by which he meant “no good outcome” and “no choice.” Twenty sixteen reminded another of the Monica Lewinsky scandal—low, embarrassing and leaving you “hurt for our country.” Another respondent remembered a talk from those days with a precocious 2½-year-old relative. She looked up at him one day and asked, “Uncle John, what’s a blow job?” He wanted to punch Bill Clinton in the face. Later a respondent, being asked what has happened to America, said: “Moral failure from the top starts to trickle down.”

Another said the 2016 race reminded him of Vietnam in terms of “the divisiveness in the country” and “the whole country being torn apart.”

Is a good outcome to this presidential year possible? Five said yes, giving versions of the idea that it will end and we’ll survive. “We’re a hardy bunch,” said a woman. Another: “It’ll stick in our minds. We’ll learn from it.”

Donald Trump’s behavior in 2016 reminds you of what? asked Mr. Hart. The answers: “schoolboy,” “brat,” “child tantrum,” “rich kid” and “bully middle-schooler.” Hillary Clinton’s? “Robotic,” “liar,” “privileged,” “cool operator” and, if I heard right, “satellite dish.”

You are late-deciding voters, said Mr. Hart. Some of you have switched around, some are still undecided. Where are you now?

One was leaning toward Mr. Trump. Another was too, “because of Supreme Court decisions.” A woman said she thought she’d go Trump. “Discard the candidate, look at the platform.”

Another was pretty close to decided for Hillary: “I so much wanted Trump,” but “he doesn’t know when to shut up.” “I don’t love Clinton—I don’t trust her.

Another, leaning toward Mr. Trump, said “It’s hard.”

Another was still undecided: “I wanted to like Trump. . . . It’s embarrassing how he acts.”

One had come down for Hillary as the “lesser of two evils.”

Another said “I’ve always been Democratic,” and allowed that Mrs. Clinton has “leadership skills.” But there’s the email story: “She lies—makes you wonder.”

Another had broken for Hillary: “Trump’s ego is what kills me.” Of Mrs. Clinton, in contrast: “She knows what she’s doing.”

Watching the next day, online, I couldn’t stop thinking of what we all know. Oh, how the two big parties have let these good people down.

America’s Decadent Leadership Class Putin doesn’t respect them, and they don’t like half the American people.

It is quite dreadful and a showing of the gravest disrespect that, if U.S. intelligence agencies are correct, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has inserted himself into America’s presidential election. And it could not have deeper implications.

If Russia is indeed behind the leaks of the emails of Democratic Party operatives Mr. Putin may have many reasons, as he often does, but the most frightening would be that he views the current American political leadership class as utterly decadent and unworthy of traditional diplomatic norms and boundaries. And, thinks, therefore, it deserves what it gets.

Why would he find them decadent—morally hollowed out, unserious? That is the terrible part: because he knows them.

President Vladimir Putin

President Vladimir Putin

Think of how he’s experienced them the past few years. Readers of these pages know of the Uranium One deal in which a Canadian businessman got Bill Clinton to help him get control of uranium mining fields in Kazakhstan. The businessman soon gave $31 million to the Clinton Foundation, with a pledge of $100 million more. Uranium One acquired significant holdings in the U.S. A Russian company moved to buy it. The deal needed U.S. approval, including from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

While it was under consideration the Clinton Foundation received more money from Uranium One. Bill Clinton got a $500,000 speech fee. Mrs. Clinton approved the deal. The Russian company is now one of the world’s largest uranium producers. Significant amounts of U.S. uranium are, in effect, owned by Russia. This summer a WikiLeaks dump showed the State Department warning that Russia was moving to control the global supply of nuclear fuel. The deal went through anyway, and the foundation flourished.

Peter Schweizer, who broke the Uranium One story, reported in these pages how Mrs. Clinton also pushed for a U.S.-Russian technology initiative whose goals included “the development of ties between the Russian and American people.” Mrs Clinton looked for U.S. investors and found them. Of the 28 announced “key partners,” 60% had made financial commitments to the Clinton Foundation. Even Russian investors ponied up.

But the research coming out of the initiative raised alarms: U.S. military experts warned of satellite, space and nuclear technology transfers. The FBI thought the Russian partners’ motive was to “gain access to classified, sensitive, and emerging technology.” WikiLeaks later unearthed a State Department cable expressing concern about the project. Somehow, said Mr. Schweizer, the Clinton State Department “missed or ignored obvious red flags.”

What would Mr. Putin, knowing all this and inferring Mrs. Clinton’s real priorities, conclude about the American political system and its major practitioners? Would he feel contempt? Might he toy with them?

As for Donald Trump, we don’t know, because he has not released his tax returns, what ties if any he has with Russia. There are charges that Trump businesses are entangled with powerful Russian financiers. We know some of his top advisers had business ties to Russia or affiliated nations and leaders.

Again, what might Mr. Putin think of this? Might he amuse himself with mischief, even to the point of attempting to hack the election returns? We’ll see.

But nothing is more dangerous than this: that Mr. Putin and perhaps other world leaders have come to have diminished respect for the morality, patriotism and large-mindedness of our leaders. Nikita Khrushchev had a rough respect for JFK and his men and that respect, in the Cuban Missile Crisis, helped avert nuclear war. Mikhail Gorbachev was in the end half-awed by Ronald Reagan’s goodness and idealism; the world knew George H.W. Bush and respected his integrity, and so he was able to build coalitions that were real coalitions, not just names. Now, whoever wins, we are in a different place, a lesser and more dangerous one.

*   *   *

On the latest groping charges: We cannot know for certain what is true, but my experience in such matters is that when a woman makes such a charge she is telling the truth. In a lifetime of fairly wide acquaintance, I’ve not known a woman to lie about sexual misbehavior or assault. I believe Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey, and I believe the women making the charges against Mr. Trump in the New York Times. The mainstream media of the United States is in the tank for the Democratic nominee, to its great and destructive shame: They add further ruin to the half-ruined reputation of a great American institution. That will make the country’s future harder and more torn up. But this story, at least as to the testimony of its central figures, does not appear to be an example of that.

*   *   *

Here I would like to say a word for the spectacular illusions under which American voters once were able to operate. You used to be able to like your guy—to admire your candidate and imagine unknown virtues he no doubt possessed that would be revealed in time, in books. Those illusions were beautiful. They gave clean energy to the engine of our politics. You can’t have illusions anymore. That souring, which is based on knowledge and observation as opposed to mere cynicism, is painful to witness and bear. The other day a conservative intellectual declared to her fellow writers and thinkers: “I’m for the venal idiot who won’t mechanize government against all I hold dear.” That’s some bumper sticker, isn’t it? And who has illusions about Mrs. Clinton? No one.

*   *   *

The big fact of the week, however, has to do with these words: They don’t like us. The Democrats, progressives and left-liberals who have been embarrassed by the latest WikiLeaks dump really hate conservatives, or nonleftists. They don’t like half the people of the country they seek to control! They look at that half with disdain and disrespect. Their disdain is not new—“bitter clingers,” “basket of deplorables.” But here it’s so unashamed and eager to express itself.

A stupid man from a leftist think tank claimed the most “powerful elements” in the conservative movement are Catholic. “They must be attracted to the systematic thought and severely backwards gender relations,” he wrote. Mrs. Clinton’s press aide Jennifer Palmieri responded: “I imagine they think it is the most socially acceptable politically conservative religion. Their rich friends wouldn’t understand if they become evangelicals.”

When I read that I imagined a conversation with my grandmother, an immigrant who was a bathroom attendant at the Abraham & Straus department store in Brooklyn. Me: “Grandma, being Catholic is now a step up. It means you’re an aristocrat! A stupid one, but still.” Grandma, blinking: “America truly is a country of miracles.”

Here’s what you see in the emails: the writers are the worst kind of snobs, snobs with nothing to recommend them. In their expression and thoughts they are common, banal, dumb, uninformed, parochial.

I don’t know about you but when people look down on me I want them to be distinguished or outstanding in some way—towering minds, people of exquisite sensibility or learning. Not these grubbly poseurs, these people who’ve never had a thought but only a sensation: Christians are backward, I saw it in a movie!

It’s the big fact of American life now, isn’t it? That we are patronized by our inferiors.

Imagine a Sane Donald Trump You know he’s a nut. What if he weren’t?

Look, he’s a nut and you know he’s a nut. I go to battleground states and talk to anyone, everyone. They all know Donald Trump’s a nut. Some will vote for him anyway. Many are in madman-versus-criminal mode, living with (or making) their final decision. They got the blues. Everyone does. They’re worried about the whole edifice: If this is where we are, where are we going?

I get the Reagan fantasy—big guy with a nonstandard résumé comes in from the outside, cleans out the stables, saves the day. But it’s a fantasy and does not apply to this moment. I get the Jacksonian fantasy—crude, rude populist comes in from the hinterlands and upends a decadent establishment to the huzzahs of normal people with mud on their boots. But it’s a fantasy, and doesn’t apply.

If Donald Trump were saneBecause he’s not a grizzled general who bears on his face the scars of a British sword, and not a shining citizen-patriot. He’s a screwball. Do you need examples? You do not, because you’re already thinking of them. For a year you’ve been observing the TV funhouse that is his brain.

I offer an observation from Newt Gingrich, Trump friend and supporter, on David Drucker’s Washington Examiner podcast. Mr. Gingrich lauded Mr. Trump because he “thinks big” and is a transformational character. But he spoke too of Trump’s essential nature. The GOP nominee “reacts very intensely, almost uncontrollably” to “anything which attacks his own sense of integrity or his own sense of respectability.” “There’s . . . a part of his personality that sometimes gets involved in petty things that make no sense.” He found it “frankly pathetic” that Mr. Trump got mad because Paul Ryan didn’t call to congratulate him after the second debate.

Mr. Gingrich said he hopes this will change. But people don’t change the fundamentals of their nature at age 70.

Mr. Trump’s great historical role was to reveal to the Republican Party what half of its own base really thinks about the big issues. The party’s leaders didn’t know! They were shocked, so much that they indulged in sheer denial and made believe it wasn’t happening.

The party’s leaders accept more or less open borders and like big trade deals. Half the base does not! It is longtime GOP doctrine to cut entitlement spending. Half the base doesn’t want to, not right now! Republican leaders have what might be called assertive foreign-policy impulses. When Mr. Trump insulted George W. Bush and nation-building and said he’d opposed the Iraq invasion, the crowds, taking him at his word, cheered. He was, as they say, declaring that he didn’t want to invade the world and invite the world. Not only did half the base cheer him, at least half the remaining half joined in when the primaries ended.

The Republican Party will now begin the long process of redefining itself or continue its long national collapse. This is an epochal event. It happened because Donald Trump intuited where things were and are going.

Since I am more in accord with Mr. Trump’s stands than not, I am particularly sorry that as an individual human being he’s a nut.

Which gives rise to a question, for me a poignant one.

What if there had been a Sane Donald Trump?

Oh my God, Sane Trump would have won in a landslide.

Sane Donald Trump, just to start, would look normal and happy, not grim and glowering. He would be able to hear and act on good advice. He would explain his positions with clarity and depth, not with the impatient half-grasping of a notion that marks real Donald Trump’s public persona.

Sane Donald Trump would have looked at a dubious, anxious and therefore standoffish Republican establishment and not insulted them, diminished them, done tweetstorms against them. Instead he would have said, “Come into my tent. It’s a new one, I admit, but it’s yuge and has gold faucets and there’s a place just for you. What do you need? That I be less excitable and dramatic? Done. That I not act, toward women, like a pig? Done, and I accept your critique. That I explain the moral and practical underpinnings of my stand on refugees from terror nations? I’d be happy to. My well-hidden secret is that I love everyone and hear the common rhythm of their beating hearts.”

Sane Donald Trump would have given an anxious country more ease, not more anxiety. He would have demonstrated that he can govern himself. He would have suggested through his actions, while still being entertaining, funny and outsize, that yes, he understands the stakes and yes, since America is always claiming to be the leader of the world—We are No. 1!—a certain attendant gravity is required of one who’d be its leader.

Sane Donald Trump would have explained his immigration proposals with a kind of loving logic—we must secure our borders for a host of serious reasons, and here they are. But we are grateful for our legal immigrants, and by the way, if you want to hear real love for America then go talk to them, for they experience more freshly than we what a wonderful place this is. In time, after we’ve fully secured our borders and the air of emergency is gone, we will turn to regularizing the situation of everyone here, because Americans are not only kindly, they’re practical, and want everyone paying taxes.

Sane Donald Trump would have spoken at great and compelling length of how the huge, complicated trade agreements created the past quarter-century can be improved upon with an eye to helping the American worker. Ideology, he might say, is the pleasant diversion of the unworried, but a nation that no longer knows how to make steel cannot be a great nation. And we are a great nation.

Sane Donald Trump would have argued that controlling entitlement spending is a necessary thing but not, in fact, this moment’s priority. People have been battered since the crash, in many ways, and nothing feels stable now. Beyond that no one right now trusts Washington to be fair and wise in these matters. Confidence-building measures are necessary. Let’s take on the smaller task of turning around Veterans Affairs and see if we can’t make that work.

Sane Donald Trump would have known of America’s hidden fractures, and would have insisted that a healthy moderate-populist movement cannot begin as or devolve into a nationalist, identity-politics movement. Those who look down on other groups, races or religions can start their own party. He, the famous brander, would even offer them a name: the Idiot Party.

Sane Donald Trump would not treat the political process of the world’s greatest democracy as if it were, as somebody said, the next-to-last episode of a reality-TV series. That’s the episode that leaves you wondering how the season will end—who will scream, who will leave the drunken party in a huff, who will accuse whom of being a whore. I guess that’s what “I’ll keep you in suspense” as to whether he’ll accept the election result was about. We’re being teed up. The explosive season finale is Nov. 8. Maybe he’ll leave in a huff. Maybe he’ll call everyone whores.

Does he know he’s playing with fire? No. Because he’s a nut.

Sane Donald Trump for president. Too bad he doesn’t exist.

The Kaine Impunity America needs seriousness, sincerity, normality. How could he not have known that?

We are unsettled. The big thing looms and so many are still groping toward a decision. We would all like it to be over. I think of the farmer who treed a coon and then climbed up to shake it out of the branches. The coon turned out to be a wild lynx, which bit him and scratched and put up a heckuva fight. The farmer’s friends heard his screams and gathered below with guns, but no one could get a clear shot. Finally the farmer shouted: “Just shoot up here amongst us, one of us has got to get some relief.”

It will be over in a month, and you’ll know what you’ve done.

Hillary Clinton is leading. Donald Trump is scrambling to regain ground.

Senator Tim Kaine

Senator Tim Kaine

The past week, three significant pieces of news. The first was Mr. Trump’s 3 a.m. tweet on Alicia Machado. Actually that happened a week and a half ago, but this week the thought really settled in: He’s going to do that as president. Once he tweeted crazy things a lot and then he sort of slowed and then he was sort of winning and then the mad 3 a.m. tweet told you: No, it will happen as president, only it will be more serious then. This is the week his friends, staff and supporters realized it will never stop.

The second was Bill Clinton’s admission that ObamaCare is a mess, “the craziest thing in the world.” At a rally in Michigan he said “you’ve got this crazy system” in which millions more people have insurance, but “the people who are out there busting it, sometimes 60 hours a week, wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half.” Later he tried to walk it back but you can never walk back an obvious truth. Mr. Clinton grew up in Arkansas in the days when America wasn’t crazy. He was alive to the realities of those struggling to keep everything afloat. Through ObamaCare they lost out. Barack Obama sees things more abstractly: Portions of the middle class may have experienced some dislocations, but progress is never easy. Mr. Clinton was speaking, knowingly or not, of the unprotected who bear the weight of the elite’s experiments.

Congratulations to him for veering into public candor. In another world what he said would be front-page news every day.

The third was the vice presidential debate. Tim Kaine has been smacked around for his performance, but not nearly enough.

His criticisms of Mr. Trump came immediately and were uniformly personal. “Donald Trump always puts himself first.” “I can’t imagine how Gov. Pence can defend the insult-driven, selfish, me-first style of Donald Trump.”

He famously and rudely interrupted both Mr. Pence and moderator Elaine Quijano. Three sentences into a Pence assertion that Mr. Trump is a successful businessman, Mr. Kaine blustered in: “And paid few taxes and lost a billion a year.” Mr. Pence brought up the Clinton Foundation accepting contributions from foreign governments; Mr. Kaine cut him off: “You are Donald Trump’s apprentice.” Mr. Pence says he wants to finish his sentence; Mr Kaine: “Finish your sentence.”

“He needs to stop interrupting,” wrote a journalist on Twitter, in real time. Actually he needed to stop being a rude little rhymes-with-witch. And he needed to show he has some idea what time it is.

His strategy was clear: Block all thought, reduce everything to prefabricated one-liners. He has a weird, un-grown-up regard for the power of sarcasm. Supposedly this would all play well with the common man. No. Mr. Kaine was like the snotty midlevel manager of a box store who comes in after a fight with the wife and starts yelling that your bathroom breaks are too long.

His antics kept the debate from developing into a series of thoughts that could be understood and absorbed. This was a destructive act that kept serious policy from being seriously discussed.

He made it cheaper than it had to be.

Everyone says vice presidential debates aren’t that important, and everyone must be right, but this is how it changed the race: Now there are two Democrats to dislike, not just one. And you can imagine Mike Pence—calm, sly sometimes, occasionally evasive—as a plausible president.

The real sin in Mr. Kaine’s performance had to do with his not knowing what time it is. After the past 16 months the nation craves in its politics seriousness, sincerity, sheer normality. This is a time that most desperately demands a little class from its nonpresidential candidates. Voters need to see that not everyone in politics is a sleazy manipulator, a mere aggressor, a game player. Do our national candidates and their staffs not know what a relief it would be to see dignity and maturity? Do they not understand that the nation needs a break from the two weirdos at the top of the ticket and yearns to be inspired and reassured by the bottom? How could Mr. Kaine not know that?

We end with the debate’s redeeming feature, which surprisingly had to do with God.

Ms. Quijano noted that both candidates are Christians who have spoken of faith’s role in their lives. She asked each to speak of a time when he struggled to balance personal faith against public policy.

Mr. Kaine said he grew up in a Catholic home, was educated by Jesuits, attempts to follow the teaching of the church in his personal life. When he was running for governor he was, in accordance with his understanding of his faith, against the death penalty. But Virginia had a law on the books mandating capital punishment for particularly heinous crimes: “I had to grapple with that.” He was “attacked pretty strongly” in the campaign. He decided to tell voters he would not change his views but would uphold the law. He was elected, and allowed executions to go forward: “That was a real struggle.”

It sounded believable and even heartfelt, though his ultimate decision—do what is politically popular—was convenient.

Mr. Pence too claimed his faith “is at the very heart of who I am.” His issue was not the death penalty but abortion. He is pro-life and ran as such from the start of his career. Why? “I would tell you that for me the sanctity of life proceeds out of the belief [in] that ancient principle . . . where God says, ‘Before you were formed in the womb, I knew you.’ ” He was saying God is real, and God made human life, so it is sacred: “It all for me begins with cherishing the dignity, the worth, the value of every human life.”

I rarely hear politicians, even pro-life ones, talk like that. It was startling, and lovely.

He spoke of partial-birth abortion. He knew, he said, that Mr. Kaine is personally against abortion, but “the very idea that a child that is almost born into the world could still have their lives taken from them is just anathema to me.” Mr. Kaine responded that he and Mrs. Clinton support Roe v. Wade, while Mr. Pence would overturn that decision. It went round and round.

But for a moment there things got serious, even sincere. Imagine that, in 2016.

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The Politics of ‘The Shallows’ What ails American democracy? Too much information and too little thought.

What impact has the modern media environment had on the 2016 campaign? I know that’s a boring sentence, but journalists and politicians talk about it a lot, journalists uneasily and politicians with frustration. The 24/7 news cycle and the million multiplying platforms with their escalating demands—for pictures, video, sound, the immediate hot take—exhaust politicians and staff, and media people too. Everyone is tired, and chronically tired people live, perilously, on the Edge of Stupid. More important, modern media realities make everything intellectually thinner, shallower. Everything moves fast; we talk not of the scandal of the day but the scandal of the hour, reducing a great event, a presidential campaign, into an endless river of gaffes.

The need to say something becomes the tendency to say anything. It makes everything dumber, grosser, less important.

Throw me a lifeline!This year I am seeing something, especially among the young of politics and journalism. They have received most of what they know about political history through screens. They are college graduates, they’re in their 20s or 30s, they’re bright and ambitious, but they have seen the movie and not read the book. They’ve heard the sound bite but not read the speech. Their understanding of history, even recent history, is superficial. They grew up in the internet age and have filled their brainspace with information that came in the form of pictures and sounds. They learned through sensation, not through books, which demand something deeper from your brain. Reading forces you to imagine, question, ponder, reflect. It provides a deeper understanding of political figures and events.

Watching a movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis shows you a drama. Reading about it shows you a dilemma. The book makes you imagine the color, sound, tone and tension, the logic of events: It makes your brain do work. A movie is received passively: You sit back, see, hear. Books demand and reward. When you read them your knowledge base deepens and expands. In time that depth comes to inform your work, sometimes in ways of which you’re not fully conscious.

In the past 18 months I talked to three young presidential candidates—people running for president, real grown-ups—who, it was clear to me by the end of our conversations, had, in their understanding of modern American political history, seen the movie and not read the book. Two of them, I’ve come to know, can recite whole pages of dialogue from movies. (It is interesting to me that the movies our politicians have most memorized are “The Godfather” Parts I and II.)

Everyone in politics is getting much of what they know through the internet, through Google searches and Wikipedia. They can give you a certain sense of things but are by nature quick and shallow reads that link to other quick and shallow reads. Sometimes subjects are treated in a tendentious manner, reflecting the biases or limited knowledge of the writer.

If you get your information mostly through the Web, you’ll get stuck in “The Shallows,” which is the name of a book by Nicholas Carr about what the internet is doing to our brains. Media, he reminds us, are not just channels of information: “They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.” The internet is chipping away at our “capacity for concentration and contemplation.” “Once I was a scuba driver in the sea of words,” writes Mr. Carr. “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

If you can’t read deeply you will not be able to think deeply. If you can’t think deeply you will not be able to lead well, or report well.

There is another aspect of this year’s media environment, and it would be wrong not to speak it. It is that the mainstream media appear to have decided Donald Trump is so uniquely a threat to democracy, so appalling as a political figure, such a break with wholesome political tradition, that they are justified in showing, day by day, not only opposition but utter antagonism toward him. That surely has some impact on what Kellyanne Conway calls “undercover Trump voters.” They know what polite people think of them; they know their support carries a social stigma. Last week I saw a CNN daytime anchor fairly levitate with anger as she reported on Mr. Trump; I thought she was going to have an out-of-body experience and start floating over the shiny glass desk. She surely knew she’d pay no price for her shown disdain, and might gain Twitter followers.

Guys, this isn’t helping. Tell the story, ask the questions, trust the people, give it to them straight, report both sides. It’s the most constructive thing you could do right now, when any constructive act comes as a real relief.

In a country whose institutions are in such fragile shape, mainstream media very much among them, it does no good for its members to damage further their own reputations for fairness, probity, judgment. Books will be written about this, though I’m not sure they’ll read them.

As to Monday’s debate, Hillary Clinton won. The story leading up to it was that she was frail, her health bad. Instead she was vibrant, confident, smiling and present. Sometimes when Mrs. Clinton speaks you sense she’s operating at a level of distraction, reviewing her performance in real time or thinking about dinner. Here her mind was on the mission. She did not fall into the hectoring cadence that is a harassment to the ear. She said nothing remotely interesting.

Mr. Trump’s job was to leave you able to imagine him as president. You could have, but it would be a grumpy, grouchy president with thin skin.

Neither quite got across the idea that they were in it for America and not themselves.

When you are a politician leaving the debate stage you always know if you won. You can feel it. You know when it worked and when it didn’t. You ask everyone, “How’d I do?” but you know the answer. And you’re happy. What you get after such a victory is the whoosh. The whoosh is the wind at your back that gives the spring to your step. You get the jolly look and your laugh is a real laugh and not an enactment, and all this makes you better at the next stop, which makes the crowd cheer louder, and then you really know you’ve got the whoosh.

The whoosh can carry you for days or weeks, until there’s a reversal of some kind. Then you lose the sense of magical good fortune and peerless personal performance and the audience senses it, gets quieter, and suddenly the whoosh is gone.

But right now Mrs. Clinton has it.

She’ll probably overplay her hand. That’s what she does. Her sense of her own destiny blinds her to her tendency toward misjudgment. She’ll call Trump supporters a bucket of baneful baddies.

Since the debate Mr. Trump is angry and is going straight into junkyard dog mode, which won’t work well.

This tells me the next week or so she’s on the upalator and he’s on the downalator. After that, we’ll see.

The Year of the Reticent Voter People seem to feel that if they express a preference, they’re inviting others to inspect their souls.

The signature sentence of this election begins with the words “In a country of 320 million . . .” I hear it everywhere. It ends with “how’d it come down to these two?” or “why’d we get them?

Another sentence is a now a common greeting among Republicans who haven’t seen each other in a while: “What are we gonna do?

The most arresting sentence of the week came from a sophisticated Manhattan man friendly with all sides. I asked if he knows what he’ll do in November. “I know exactly,” he said with some spirit. “I will be one of the 40 million who will deny, the day after the election, that they voted for him. But I will.”

A high elected official, a Republican, got a faraway look when I asked what he thought was going to happen. “This is the unpollable election,” he said. People don’t want to tell you who they’re for. A lot aren’t sure. A lot don’t want to be pressed.

Political JoustingThat’s exactly what I’ve seen the past few weeks in North Carolina, New Jersey, Tennessee and Minnesota.

Every four years I ask people if they’ll vote, and if they have a sense of how. Every four years they tell me—assertively or shyly, confidently or tentatively. This year is different. I’ve never seen people so nervous to answer. It’s so unlike America, this reticence, even defensiveness. It’s as if there’s a feeling that to declare who you’re for is to invite others to inspect your soul.

“I feel like this is the most controversial election ever,” said a food-court worker at La Guardia Airport. She works a full shift, 4 a.m. to noon, five days a week, then goes full-time to a nearby college. We’d been chatting a while, and when I asked the question she told me, carefully, that she hasn’t decided how she’ll vote, and neither have her family members. I said a lot of people seem nervous to say. She said: “Especially Trump people. They’re afraid you’ll think they’re stupid.”

Which is how I knew she was going to vote for Donald Trump.

It’s true: Trump voters especially don’t want to be categorized, judged, thought stupid—racist, sexist, Islamophobic, you name it. When most of them know, actually, that they’re not.

Voters who talk about 2016 are very careful to damn both sides, air their disappointment, note that they’ve been following the election closely. They know each candidate’s history.

In Tennessee I asked a smart businessman who he’s for. He carefully and at length outlined his criticisms and concerns regarding both candidates. Then, as I started to leave, he threw in, from nowhere: “So I think Trump.”

When I talk to strangers—which I do a lot, and like it—I sometimes say dour, mordant things, to get them going by establishing that anything can be said. I say if Hillary Clinton is elected there will be at least one special prosecutor, maybe two, within 18 months, because her character will not be reborn on crossing the threshold of the White House; the well-worn grooves of her essential nature will kick in. If Mr. Trump is elected there will be a constitutional crisis within 18 months because he doesn’t really know what a president does, doesn’t respect traditional boundaries, doesn’t reflect on implications and effects. I always expect pushback. I am not getting it! I get nods, laughs and, in two recent cases, admissions that whoever wins they’d been wondering how soon impeachment proceedings would begin.

Oh, my pained and crazy country.

A final observation, underlying all. Under the smiles and beyond the reticence it is clear how seriously Americans are taking their decision, how gravely. As if it’s not Tweedledum and Tweedledee but an actual choice between two vastly different dramas, two different worlds of outcome and meaning. The cynic or the screwball? Shall we go to the bad place or the crazy place?

I returned knowing I was wrong about something. I thought everyone has been watching the election more than a year, everyone knows their opinion of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump, this thing is pretty much settled. No, it’s fluid. This cake is not baked.

I talked to Peter D. Hart, the veteran Democratic pollster. Are things as much in play as I think? Yes and no, he said. People do have a firm opinion of the two candidates, the clichés are set: “Hillary competent and cold, Trump an incompetent loose cannon.” But “the part that is evolving is a sense of what we need to do and where we need to go.” Everyone wants change, but people are deciding, “constructive change or radical change?”

Pollster Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies says nothing is settled. “Voters are angry at Clinton because she can’t tell the truth and they’re scared of Trump because they’re afraid he’s gonna start a war. There are times her un-truthiness outweighs their concern about him overreacting and starting a war. It goes back and forth.”

He disagrees with the “unpollable” premise: “It’s pollable. But if anyone says their results are cast in concrete, that’s a mistake. There’s a lot of fluidity.”

The veteran pollster Kellyanne Conway, now Trump campaign manager, says: “This thing is fluid in a way we don’t understand.” She is a close student of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign in all its aspects. Like Mr. Obama, she says, Mr. Trump is “a candidate built for the 21st century. . . . The most fundamental truth of politics is there’s no substitute for a great, magnetic, compelling candidate.”

She speaks of “undercover” Trump voters. “To call them hidden is a mistake. They’re undercover because they’ve gotten to the point they’re tired of arguing. . . . Some have been voting Democratic all their life, they voted for Obama, they’re tired of defending and explaining themselves” to family and coworkers. “They don’t want to proselytize.”

Mr. Hart said the debates are unusually important this year. “Trump is the central character—it’s his last opportunity to get a fresh look from voters. A debate is an open window. Voters suspend opinions and look afresh. Attitudes toward Trump have not changed—temperament questions, can he do the job?” This is a chance for him to “establish credibility at this stage of the game.” By contrast, “Hillary’s problems are not professional but personal—can I like her, does she understand me. . . . It’s an opportunity for her to get voters saying, ‘You know something, she’s not a bad egg.’ ”

Ms. Conway too says the debates are key. “People like a clash of the titans. They like a contest. These debates are the ultimate reality show—the stakes have never been higher.” After the Democratic convention the Clinton campaign, in a major miscalculation, “lowered the bar” for Trump, “calling him unfit, unpresidential.” That turned him into the underdog. “Americans love an underdog.”

Ms. Conway remembered what happened in 2008 when John McCain referred to his long experience. “Obama said if experience means you got us into this mess overseas and tanked the economy, maybe experience is overrated. We are turning this around on Clinton now.”

Mr. Trump’s advantage? “Americans love to say they think outside the box. Trump lives outside the box. Hillary is the box.”