What's at stake in Trump vs. Clinton election?

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    Donald Trump accepts Republican presidential nomination

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Donald Trump accepts Republican presidential nomination 01:04

Story highlights

  • Thursday, after a tumultuous primary campaign, Donald Trump formally accepted the 2016 Republican presidential nomination
  • Charles Kaiser: The stakes are higher than they've ever been, as Americans inch one step closer to the brink of political disaster

Charles Kaiser is the author of "1968 in America," "The Gay Metropolis" and, most recently, "The Cost of Courage." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)America has always relied upon the latest wave of immigrants to reinvent and reinvigorate these United States. For those of us who were raised in that faith -- and there are millions of us -- nothing could be more offensive than the detritus shoveled out for 76 minutes by Donald J. Trump at the Republican National Convention last week.

Smug, unctuous, fueled by hatred and obsessed with fear: These were the shining qualities of Trump's acceptance speech on Thursday night. Its naked pandering to prejudice was worse than anything since Pat Buchanan's culture wars speech at the Republican convention 24 years ago. No other major party candidate of modern times has ever appealed so directly to America's dark side. And Trump's willingness to repeatedly scapegoat minorities is a haunting echo of the worst demagoguery of the 1930s. There is no difference in intent between his references to Muslims and Hitler's references to Jews.
    Charles Kaiser
    Naturally, white supremacists like David Duke (who Trump has not always been eager to condemn) were ecstatic with this approach: "Great Trump Speech," Duke tweeted. "America First! Stop Wars! Defeat the Corrupt elites! Protect our Borders! Fair Trade! Couldn't have said it better!" After being widely denounced for his previous silence, Trump now acknowledges the need to disavow Duke.
    Nonetheless, Trump's address was a toxic combination of unprovable claims -- "excessive regulation is costing our country as much as $2 trillion a year" and ending it will "produce more than $20 trillion in job-creating economic activity" -- and outright lies -- "My opponent wants to essentially abolish the Second Amendment."
    The Republican nominee repeated his belief that "NATO is obsolete." Hours earlier, he told The New York Times he found nothing sacred about America's decades-old pledge to defend any NATO member whose borders are threatened by Russia. That cavalier pronouncement prompted this pithy summary from Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic: Trump "has chosen ... to unmask himself as a de facto agent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a KGB-trained dictator who seeks to rebuild the Soviet empire by undermining the free nations of Europe, marginalizing NATO and ending America's reign as the world's sole superpower."
    In any other year, Trump's Putin-loving, Mexican-and-Muslim-bashing rhetoric would have disqualified him as a serious candidate right from the start. After all, in previous presidential elections, what now look like minor misdemeanors -- Howard Dean's "scream" after the Iowa caucuses in 2004, Joe Biden's plagiarism in 1988 or Ed Muskie's "tears" in 1972 (which were really New Hampshire snowflakes melting on his cheeks) -- were all ruled fatally disqualifying by the big-footers of the national press corps.
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    Donald Trump's big night in 90 seconds

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    But this year, the nonstop outrages of the Republican presidential nominee and the never-ending character assassination of Hillary Clinton have produced a press paralysis unlike anything I have witnessed in 14 previous presidential contests. Trump careens so quickly from one outrage to another -- one day he's praising Putin and Kim Jong-un, the next day he's implying that Ted Cruz's father was Lee Harvey Oswald's ally -- that reporters cannot focus on any single atrocity.
    Meanwhile, buried by congressional Benghazi investigations and over-the-top comments by FBI Director James Comey about her "careless" but clearly noncriminal handling of her emails, Clinton's substantive accomplishments as secretary of state are completely ignored. Last week Trump blithely renounced America's role as a moral leader abroad, when he told The New York Times that America had no right to criticize the behavior of other countries. "When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don't think we're a very good messenger," he said.
    In contrast, Clinton used her influence to free political prisoners everywhere from Uzbekistan, where she successfully pressed President Islam Karimov for the release of its poet laureate, Yusuf Juma, to Myanmar, where she and her assistant secretary for human rights, Michael Posner, persuaded the government to release 1,100 prisoners as part of the re-engagement between the Mynanmar and American governments.
    Clinton also made history with an unprecedented speech in Switzerland in 2011, when she declared, "Like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights."
    Hillary Clinton promotes gay rights
    Hillary Clinton promotes gay rights

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    But the differences don't just stop at foreign policy. Trump displays a pristine ignorance of almost every major issue of our time, while Clinton is steeped in the details of every issue from pre-K education to the clear and present dangers of global warming. And yet, because they both have high unfavorable ratings with different parts of the electorate, much of the press persists in making false equivalencies between them.
    As Barack Obama said of Clinton, "I don't think there's ever been someone so qualified to hold this office." After her previous eight years in the White House, eight years in the Senate and four years at the State Department, she would have the easiest learning curve any new president has ever had. But in this upside-down year, Clinton's lifelong immersion in government is often portrayed as her greatest defect, while her opponent literally has no experience of governing at all.
    On Saturday, Tim Kaine did a splendid job of drawing that contrast in his first speech after Clinton announced he would be her running mate. Kaine's optimism and openness were the perfect antidote to Trump's Darth Vader vision of America.
    Those who knew Trump first and know him best, like author Tony Schwartz, who penned his best-seller, "The Art of the Deal," have no doubt about the likely consequences of Trump's inexperience. Schwartz told Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, "I genuinely believe if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization."