No two presidential candidates since polling began have run up negatives as massive as those of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, who yet won their parties' nominations easily. "What gives?" may be the biggest political mystery in history.
The candidates' plights are not akin. A poll last week, which closely mirrored ones from the primary season, showed that 62 percent of voters think Trump is not minimally qualified to be president, slightly better than the 67 percent in a July poll. He is largely viewed as a ridiculous if amusing human being. Only one national candidate — Vice President Dan Quayle in 1992 — alarmed more voters, 65 percent of them. Sarah Palin, John McCain's 2008 running mate, scared only 55 percent.
Clinton is seen as well qualified to be president by 60 percent, and 61 percent think she has a better temperament than Trump to be president. But most people also just don't like her. The endless Whitewater investigations of the '90s never turned up any wrongdoing except a tin political ear, petulance for the press and her doubters and a mania for privacy and secrecy. The modern snipe hunts — Benghazi and her private email server — reinforced those old resentments. People do not want to vote for someone they do not like, admirable qualities or not.
The unavoidable equation is that Trump is a potential president because enough voters are turned off by Clinton than they are ready to vote for a man they consider a joke and a fraud, or else to forsake any responsibility for the presidency by voting for a bumbling Libertarian who makes Trump sound like a savant, or the perennial Green Party candidate who calls Clinton a right-winger more dangerous than Trump and Obama a corporate lackey.
The optimistic way to look at it, if you want Clinton to be elected in spite of her unlikability, is that current polls show Trump getting the votes of little more than the 40 percent or so who think he is qualified and stable enough to be president. If that is his limit, huge votes for Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, who wants to scrap public education, Social Security and Medicare, decriminalize drugs and shrink the military, are his only route to the presidency.
But Trump has not merely flouted all known political norms, he has destroyed them. He has embraced America's implacable enemy for 65 years, admired every brutal despot of our time, celebrated greed, personal aggrandizement and lechery, boasted about his infidelities, mocked humility and kindness, bragged about manipulating government and taxpayers ($885 million from New York taxpayers alone) to build a fortune and shrouded the smallest claim in a veil of dishonesty.
Consider only news of the past two weeks, when he became a "normal" candidate.
Trump and Vladimir Putin exchanged more plaudits, even after disclosures of Kremlin meddling in U.S. elections and after Trump had to cashier his campaign director after disclosures of the man's profiting by millions of dollars for helping the Kremlin destabilize Eastern Europe. Putin's propaganda minister went on TV regularly to praise Trump, who would shift U.S. allegiance from democratic Europe to Russia.
For some reason, Trump decided to declare unequivocally that Barack Obama was born in America after claiming for five years that he was a Kenyan. But he crafted two new lies, that Hillary Clinton had started the birther lie and that he had rescued the president from the calumny.
Having once dictated his doctor's proclamation that he would be the fittest president in history, Trump got a quick checkup to counter Clinton's admission that she caught pneumonia and her release of medical records. His report touted his testosterone level, but to counter the negative report that he was fat he grew one inch, from his lifetime 6-foot-2 to 6-3, so that his weight officially reduced him from obesity, last assigned to President Taft in 1912, to merely too fat.
Trump has refused to release his 2015, or any, tax return because he was being audited (Clinton's open returns go back to 1977), but his son-in-law explained that the tax return would just raise too many questions.
Trump and his foundation spent $60,000 furtively on the campaigns of the Texas and Florida attorneys general in a transparent attempt to prevent their investigating claims by people who were bilked by Trump's defunct "university." One of the Trump charity's biggest expenditures, it was revealed, was $20,000 for a 6-foot painting of himself, which was placed in one of his golf resorts rather than given to charity, as nonprofit laws require.
It turns out that political norms and expectations like truthfulness, transparency and wisdom can be liabilities. Polls show that people will vote for Trump precisely because he doesn't follow the rules and might shake things up in Washington and the world. To what end is secondary.