Donald Trump Could Have Been President

Let’s never forget what a terrifying thing we almost did.

Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention on July 21 in Cleveland.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Donald Trump is never going to be the president of the United States. As we sit and digest each successive leak of damaging material, each un-endorsement, each Trump threat to attack Hillary Clinton in the most personal terms imaginable, the fact remains that Trump has almost surely destroyed his chance of ever becoming the most powerful man on Earth. The discussion will now slowly shift to Republican hopes of shoring up down-ballot races and (just wait) the creation of Trump TV. But we cannot and should not forget: A couple days ago it was still fathomable that America could have voted into office the biggest threat to the country in decades.

The danger of Donald Trump is, and always was, twofold. He leads a movement that is bigoted and racist and plays to people’s worst impulses. He promises policies—many of which are bigoted and racist—that would be extraordinarily dangerous for America. He has brought into the public dialogue a level of vitriol that shows no signs of abating. His contempt for the truth—for science, for common sense, for honesty about anything, really—are astonishing to behold, even after nearly 18 months. His authoritarianism, however emphasized to cement his tough-guy image, is real and frightening. If Donald Trump disappears from public life tomorrow, many of these things (and the support they inspired), which together we might call Trumpism, will remain. And so, even if he drops out tomorrow, we have a lot to reckon with going forward.

But there has always been another side to the prospect of a Trump presidency, beyond any calculation of Trump’s policies or undemocratic nature. And that is, simply, that Donald Trump would become president. Thin-skinned, corrupt, incompetent, bullying, immature, mentally fragile, full of rage: all of these qualities have been in ample abundance for well over a year, and in office they would promise to be catastrophic. It was no exaggeration to say Trump could potentially have made horrific errors of judgment as president and that his lack of stability could threaten the stability of the world. Even assuming Trumpism survives, this part of Trump’s rise—Donald Trump, the man—will not. A vile and dangerous person who should never run a nuclear-armed country with the most powerful military in human history will not do so.

The problem with treating Trump’s candidacy as being so deathly serious, however, was always that, in addition to being a racist demagogue, Trump is also a buffoonish jerk who tweets at 3 a.m. and loves nothing more than to put on a show. So even when he gained in the polls and ticked up past 40 percent on some forecasting sites, to many, he was still a joke. The leak of Trump’s disgusting remarks on Friday, although putting a near end to his chances, in a way also reinforced this idea. Just look at how ridiculous and gross he is, I heard more than one person say. Today, it might feel inevitable that he would crash and burn, and it was always likely. But it wasn’t a sure thing. We could have elected him.

To say that American society is currently divided (and damaged) is a cliché, but also correct. To note that Hillary Clinton shares many of the establishment’s worst traits and promises to oversee an ethically challenged and inevitably unpopular administration goes without saying. To worry that what Donald Trump has unleashed will stay unleashed is sensible. But for a moment, we should pause to reflect on the fact that he will not be president and that America and the world have probably avoided a catastrophe of unknown proportions.

Read more of Slate’s election coverage.