HOW do people learn to accept what they once found unacceptable? In 1927 Frederic Thrasher published a “natural history” of 1,313 gangs in Chicago. Each of them lived by a set of unwritten rules that had come to make sense to gang members but were still repellent to everyone else. So it is with Donald Trump and many of his supporters. By normalising attitudes that, before he came along, were publicly taboo, Mr Trump has taken a knuckle-duster to American political culture.
The recording of him boasting about grabbing women “by the pussy”, long before he was a candidate, was unpleasant enough. More worrying still has been the insistence by many Trump supporters that his behaviour was normal. So too his threat, issued in the second presidential debate, to have Hillary Clinton thrown into jail if he wins. In a more fragile democracy that sort of talk would foreshadow post-election violence. Mercifully, America is not about to riot on November 9th. But the reasons have less to do with the state’s power to enforce the letter of the law than with the unwritten rules that American democracy thrives on. It is these that Mr Trump is trampling over—and which Americans need to defend.
Once you start throwing mud in politics, it is very hard to stop. Yet, every so often, you get a glimpse of something better. When Todd Akin lost a winnable Senate seat in 2012, after haplessly trying to draw a distinction between “legitimate rape” and the not so legitimate sort, Republican candidates and political consultants took notice.
Such a realisation needs to strike home on a grand scale. Healthy politics is not gang warfare. It involves compromise, because to yield in some areas is to move forward in others. It is about antagonists settling on a plan, because to do nothing is the worst plan of all. It requires the insight that your opponent can be honourable and principled, however strongly you disagree. The 2016 election campaign has poured scorn on such ideas. All Americans are worse off as a result.
Read the complete article on The Economist web site.