(Bloomberg View) -- If the polls are to be believed, Donald Trump’s chances of winning the election have all but vanished. The last television debate is unlikely to have arrested his downward trajectory. One should never say never (think of the Brexit referendum) but the question now, it seems, is what will follow Hillary Clinton’s victory.
Here’s what ought to follow: Relief at a disaster averted, followed by some sober reflection.
After the election, especially if Clinton wins comfortably, a consensus will form around the idea that Trump was bound to fail. As the past year recedes, and in view of the man’s outlandish defects, this theory will be plausible -- yet nonetheless false. The most remarkable and disturbing thing about this election is just how unelectable Trump had to be to lose.
Being as bad as he needed to be proved quite a challenge, but he sank to it. Starting with his attacks on the parents of a fallen soldier, ending with his refusal to say he’d accept the election result, he proved his unfitness to be president in vivid and meticulous detail. One of Clinton’s most telling points in Wednesday’s debate was her charge that whenever things go badly for Trump, he says the system is rigged against him. True. He’s a small man. He can’t take setbacks and he can’t take criticism. Forget his idiotic policies, if you can even call them policies: The thought of a pathologically thin-skinned narcissist with control of nuclear weapons is all you need to consider.
And yet he could have won. If he’d done even an hour or two of homework, demonstrated the slightest capacity for empathy, some small willingness to apologize when apology was due, the merest sense of his own imperfections, this man still recognizable as Trump could have won. What does it tell you that such an objectively terrible candidate might so easily have had the presidency in his grasp?
One answer, strongly preferred by the country’s political class, is that roughly half the country is too clueless to be trusted with a vote. To me, that proportion seems much too high, and I don’t think this theory can be right. A better answer is that Trump’s very unfitness is a measure of the despair millions of Americans feel when they contemplate their political representatives. The system has failed them so badly, they doubt that Trump could make things any worse; and supporting him at least sent a message of protest to the powers that be.
Clinton’s win, in the clearest possible terms, will be a victory for those powers. Yes, of course, the Republican Party failed egregiously when it nominated Trump. But the Democratic Party failed too. It defeated its own insurgency, led by Bernie Sanders, only to nominate an exemplary representative, truly a caricature, of politics as usual -- of tenure and entitlement, of money talks, of public positions and private positions, of a complacent and immovable ruling class.
Once Trump is defeated, the instinct to dismiss him as a meaningless aberration should be resisted. It’s necessary to retain a sense of astonishment at his success -- and to recognize it as a crushing vote of no confidence in American politics. For that reason, Clinton and her supporters should accept her victory with restraint and at least a semblance of humility. Hard to imagine, I know. But really, how much credit is there in having defeated Trump?
Barack Obama’s election in 2008 was a moment when it was possible to believe that the U.S. would come together. Things have turned out otherwise. Today America stands more bitterly divided than a decade ago, not just by race but also by class and culture. Never mind Clinton’s slogan of “Stronger Together.” There’ll be no coming together this time, not even for a moment, and nobody in his right mind would have suggested Hillary Clinton as the right politician to mend those divisions.
America’s political dysfunction isn’t going away. It could have got Donald Trump -- Donald Trump! -- elected. Next time, who knows?
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.