Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty

With hours to go before tonight’s presidential debate, one great defining question hangs over American politics: Will Donald Trump’s performance tonight allow white people to keep pretending he can possibly be president?

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All the anxious analysis going on right now, about expectations and fact-checking and tactics, has very little to do with the question of which candidate should be president. Nothing that happens tonight will change the fact that Hillary Clinton is an experienced and largely competent public servant, committed to a broadly palatable policy agenda (disclosure: I’m personally connected to some of her policy work), while Donald Trump is a corrupt, race-baiting baby-man whose only defense against charges that he’s a pathological liar is that he’s too ignorant to know which facts he’s lying about.

Most Americans—or rather, most kinds of Americans—know this. Black people, Asian people, and Hispanic people have long since recognized that Donald Trump was absurdly unqualified to be president in the first place, and that everything he’s done since has been further disqualification. Yet Trump is still close enough to Hillary Clinton in the polls that the press is trying to come up with reasons why that is so, and why tonight’s debate is so pivotal.

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The reason why Trump is running a competitive race is very simple: White people would like to vote for a racist idiot. The presidential race will be determined by the question of whether white people merely have a mild desire to vote for a racist idiot, or an overwhelming desire to vote for a racist idiot.

The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll laid it out very simply. Trump, the poll reported, “leads by 16 points among whites overall, while Clinton leads by 50 points among nonwhites, a bit less than the typical Democratic margin. (One reason is that 6 percent of nonwhites favor Johnson or Jill Stein of the Green Party.)”

As in 2012, when Mitt Romney’s supporters were 88 percent white, it is important to remember that “nonwhites” is not a demographic group. It is a diverse collection of different racial and ethnic groups with different histories and outlooks. Asian voters and black voters are voting together against the Republican candidate not because they share an ideological and socioeconomic profile, but because he is running a campaign based on white identity.

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Here, from the ABC/Post poll, is how voters feel about Donald Trump’s qualifications for the presidency:

Fifty-seven percent of poll respondents consider Trump unqualified (59 percent said they consider Clinton qualified). Yet 44 percent of the likely-voter pool said they planned to vote for Trump in a four-way race.

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When the Los Angeles Times runs an op-ed saying “If Clinton loses, blame the email controversy and the media,” what it means is, “If Clinton loses, blame the fact that white people decided to pretend the email controversy mattered, because they wanted to vote for the racist candidate.” When you see a story about how more voters doubt Clinton’s honesty than Trump’s, what it means is, more white people are pretending Clinton’s honesty is shakier than Trump’s, because they want to vote for the racist candidate.

Is this an oversimplification? Of course. Many voters also want to vote for Donald Trump because Hillary Clinton is a woman, and they hate women. Again, the ABC/Post poll:

Further, Clinton now leads by 19 points among women, Trump by 19 among men—a yawning 38-point gender gap, triple the average gender gap in exit polls dating to 1976.

This is the audience for the debate. What’s being contested is not whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump can make a better case for being president. It’s whether, after eight years of a black president and facing the prospect of a female president with overwhelming nonwhite support, white people can find an excuse to burn the country down rather than keep having a chief executive who is not a white man.

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Clinton’s debate performance will have almost nothing to do with it. The only real question about Clinton tonight is whether she will, at any point, do something that will allow Trump, afterward, to marvel to his supporters about what a bitch she is. She probably will—that is, Trump and his supporters will find something—but this too is really a question about Trump: How far can he push white identity politics before it breaks?

The new poll finds that Trump is trailing by 25 points among college-educated white women, a group Romney carried. His 11-point lead among college-educated white men still leaves him trailing in the white collegiate class.

The only thing that makes Trump a viable candidate is his runaway popularity among non-college-educated whites. In the ABC/Post poll, Trump leads Clinton by 12 points among white women who have no college education, and by 59 points—76 to 17—among white men with no college education.

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What are these whites planning to vote for, that no one else in the country can see? The respectable and conventional message is that they are voting for Trump to shake up the system, in frustration and despair over the decline they’re seeing in their corner of America. Jobs are gone, drug abuse is rampant, personal dignity and the hope of upward mobility have been destroyed by vast and brutal forces.

But the ongoing and singular appeal of Trump doesn’t really fit that sympathetic argument. The white working class is not somehow more working class than the rest of the working class, and the rest of the working class is planning to vote for Clinton.

What Trump is selling his target audience is the idea that they can be like him—not that they can be rich, not that they can famous, not that they can periodically upgrade their wives for newer and more pneumatic versions, but that they can get away with openly expressing their contempt for and hatred of people not like themselves, and with not giving a shit. If white Americans’ lives were truly desperate and hanging in the balance, they would never take the risk of electing an incompetent blowhard.