Let’s start shallow and try to end deeper.
The shallow thought is about campaign theatrics, or, better, the mood with which candidates present themselves to the public.
Part of how Donald Trump connects with his audience, those in the hall and those watching at home, is that he tells them how he experiences things. It comes across as undefended, forthcoming—fresh. Hillary Clinton at this point would never say how she’s experiencing things. She doesn’t wing it because when she has in the past—from “I’m not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man, like Tammy Wynette” and “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies” right up to “We came out of the White House not only dead broke but in debt”—she always came to regret impromptu remarks. A certain unconscious snobbery always seeped out, and repelled when she meant to attract.
No one has ever taken Mr. Trump for a snob, but that isn’t my point. Mrs. Clinton is heavily defended, mentally edits and re-edits every spontaneous comment, and has a tropism toward the unimaginative. Boring is a safe place to be in politics so I can’t imagine she sees it as anything but a trade-off. Better not to give them a memorable quote than to give them “What difference, at this point, does it make?”
Wednesday night in his speech in Cincinnati Mr. Trump was typically free-associative and talked too long, more than an hour. He doesn’t know when to stop because he doesn’t know when he’s made his point, or sometimes what his point was. But he unselfconsciously shares a lot of his internal dialogue, and how he’s experiencing things. “Baron draws stars all over the place.” “I hate mosquitoes.” “Have I been a good messenger?” “I said three times, bad, bad, bad,” of Saddam Hussein. The golf swing they showed on TV “actually looked good.” “This speech last night was good.” He mimicked newscasters, saying “They are liars, these are bad people,” and Mrs. Clinton, aping her speech patterns.
There is something scatty in this but also something interesting, possibly potent. There is no invisible scrim between him and the audience. He also has fun and is a comic. I realized he thinks he has to entertain; it’s part of his job to be informal, surprising, personal—to make jokes, even to step apart from himself and almost admit: Look, I don’t always get it right in interviews but I’m trying over here! Wednesday night as he spoke I thought of Jerry Lewis—“Hey, lady!”—and what was said of him, that a television camera was his full moon.
Anyway, this dynamic—that he personally connects and entertains, and she doesn’t—will continue, because he can’t stop it and she can’t do it.
A note on mainstream media antipathy to Trump. I suspect at the moment it’s starting to help him. More than half the country is willing to believe the media are essentially dishonest and mobby, that they function either consciously or not as Democratic operatives, that they don’t have to like Mrs. Clinton (and they don’t) to function in this way, and that they feel nothing but disrespect for Mr. Trump, his followers and everything they represent. But a lot of TV journalists are particularly upfront and out there now about their antipathy, in part because they’re honestly alarmed—this guy could really become president—and in part because it is not respectable not to hate him. But they are starting to make him look sympathetic.
His media foes should watch out for a boomerang effect.
On Mrs. Clinton and FBI Director James Comey’s decision to recommend against prosecution:
Mr. Comey looked to me both embarrassed and double-minded. He appeared to want to make clear that Mrs. Clinton was repeatedly untruthful in her public statements on her server and emails. He is a sophisticated man who surely knew people would take video clips of his announced findings and juxtapose them with video clips of her previous assertions. He was clear in his words and made that job easy, which he didn’t have to do. He could have spoken the horrible bureaucratic nonlanguage people in government revert to when they don’t want to be understood.
When you look at the tapes of Mrs. Clinton’s assertions, you see exactly what her face looks like and her voice sounds like when she is lying. That will do her no good!
But the story is now over. In politics when you don’t die, you are alive. Prosecution would likely have killed her presidential hopes. With no prosecution she moves forward as a member of the Undead.
The scandal will make Mrs. Clinton look worse to people who had doubts about her essential character, and to those who didn’t know they should have reservations. It made her look better to no one. At a certain point a central idea—that she decided to subvert government record-keeping requirements and freedom-of-information requests, and damn the repercussions—broke through. That point was the famous private-plane-on-the-Phoenix-tarmac meeting of Bill Clinton and the attorney general who would ultimately decide her case. People thought: Wow, that smells. It stinks. It was like a plot point in “House of Cards.” A saving grace of the Clintons is that they’re often too clever by half.
I add only that Mr. Comey’s decision, after the famous 3½-hour holiday-weekend interview with Mrs. Clinton, makes you wonder if they would have recommended prosecution only if she had confessed to wrongdoing. Maybe they were expecting a Perry Mason moment where she breaks down under questioning. “Of course I knew having a private server was wrong! Of course I knew it meant Putin was reading my emails! I’ll tell you something else, I was the man in the hat on the Grassy Knoll. I killed Mary Meyer on the C&O Canal and I’m proud of it!”
But that wouldn’t happen in real life, would it?
It is legitimately asked whether this is a government of laws or a government of men—of failed, flawed human beings. Are the rich and powerful always assumed now to have the decisive finger on the scales of justice?
Anything that increases public cynicism in America is, at this point, a very particular and damaging sin. It spreads an air of social defeatism. It saps the civic will. It makes earnest and trusting people feel like dopes and dupes. It makes trusting parents look clueless to their children.
Cynicism is also a virus. Once everyone knows nothing is on the square, as they used to say, they too become more corrupt just to maintain their position.
Cynicism doesn’t just make everything worse; it creates a new kind of bad. It kills, for instance, the idea of merit. You don’t rise through talent and effort; you rise through lies, connections, silence, the rules of the gang. That gives the young an unearned bitterness. That is a terrible thing for adults to do, to deprive the young of the idealism that helps them rise cleanly and with point.