People who feel themselves under threat have a high tolerance for cruelty in their leaders: A little savagery to defend the homeland might be a good thing. But the crucial thing about Donald Trump is that he is not a nationalist who uses immoral means. He is first and foremost an immoralist, whose very being was defined by dishonesty, cruelty, betrayal and cheating long before he put on political garb.
In this presidential campaign, Trump’s nationalist platform — trade, immigration — has faded into the background while his immoral nature has taken center stage. Compared to 2016, it’s more pure Trump and less Pat Buchanan.
The key events of the campaign have been moral events: Trump reportedly calling military veterans and the war dead suckers and losers; Trump downplaying a deadly pandemic to the American people; Trump failing to pay fair taxes; Trump sidling up to white supremacists, resorting to racist and QAnon dog whistles.
The debate was an important moment. You and I can give sermons about how cruel, dishonest behavior shreds the norms of a decent society. But moral degradation is an invisible process. It happens subtly over time.