The answer is no: We haven’t seen anything quite like thisRight -- we've never seen anything like this in a general-election presidential debate. But the only thing new that happened yesterday was that Trump brought the attitudes, suspicions, and resentments of conservative America to the debate stage undiluted. (Headline of Rosie Gray's debate write-up at BuzzFeed: "Trump Goes Full Breitbart.")
The question has been asked so many times over the past 16 months of this presidential election that it has become a cliche: Has anyone ever seen anything quite like this? And yet, once again, Donald Trump took Campaign 2016 to places no one could have imagined when it all began.
... [Trump] tried to turn attention away from the damaging video by saying that Clinton’s husband, Bill Clinton, had treated women far worse. And he pledged that if he becomes president, he would appoint a special prosecutor to go after her for her use of a private email server, saying if he were in charge of law enforcement, she would be in prison.
... never has there been a debate in which the attacks, the body language and the exchanges conveyed the degree to which this campaign has reached the depths of division and disagreement, not just between the two candidates but between two Americas.
What we saw from Trump yesterday is what we've seen on Fox News, talk radio, and conservative websites every single day for the past twenty years. We're just not supposed to see it from the Republican presidential nominee, who's supposed to go light on the demonization and degradation of Democrats that's the common language of the right. Trump's just not bothering to engage in the usual deception.
How can we be shocked that Trump said he'd put Hillary Clinton in jail? The mantra of his convention last summer was "Lock her up"; there are voter-created "Hillary for Prison" signs all over America. (And this isn't even new. In the 2000 campaign, a guaranteed applause line in Pat Buchanan's stock speech was his assertion that his first act as president would be to turn to the outgoing president, Bill Clinton, and say, "Sir, you have the right to remain silent.")
And how can we be shocked that Trump believes Bill and Hillary Clinton regularly preyed on women? That's been a staple of conservative discourse for a generation, and it would have been used by the conservative press against Hillary even if this year's nominee chose not to raise it personally.
Here's a Fox Nation post titled "A Millennial's Guide to Bill Clinton's 20+ Sex Scandals"; it was published in December 2015, when the outcome of the Republican primaries was still in doubt. And from November 2007, when Hillary Clinton seemed likely to be the 2008 Democratic nominee, here's a Sean Hannity interview with Kathleen Willey:
SEAN HANNITY ...: In her new book entitled "Target: Caught in the Crosshairs of Bill and Hillary Clinton," Kathleen Willey takes us on a detailed account of the alleged assault in the Oval Office, to the fallout that followed, to the death of her husband....And on and on. This stuff isn't going out on the dark Web -- it's hiding in plain sight. If it shocks you coming from Trump, where were you when it was bubbling up from the fever swamps all these years?
Well, you've known you were going to write this book, and you know the Clinton operatives, because you've lived through this, they're -- they're going to come out. They're going to assassinate your character. You've lived through this.
WILLEY: I have.
HANNITY: As has every woman who has ever accused Bill Clinton of anything. They've all gone through this, right?
HANNITY: And you are friends with Juanita Broaddrick.
WILLEY: I am.
HANNITY: You've talked to Paula Jones. We know that he admitted to lying about Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers.
Trump said last night that Hillary Clinton has "tremendous hate in her heart"; in The New York Times, Patrick Healy and Jonathan Martin describe this as a "startling accusation." But what's "startling" about it? Conservatives have been describing Democrats and liberals as America's real hatemongers for years now -- if you call out racism, the right says that you're the real racist. This happens all the time. There's nothing new here.
Donald Trump is the real Republican Party stripped of phony civility and fake high-mindedness. He represents his party better than John McCain and Mitt Romney ever did. He's the genuine article. If you're shocked by his campaign, you've had your head in the sand for a long time.