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Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis, Mo.-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media.

Eight years ago, I was a student at Washington University in St. Louis, which hosted the vice-presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. We laughed that in an election marked by the promise of Barack Obama's hope and change, our campus was the one hosting Ms. Palin, whose ignorance and outbursts had made her a national joke.

Little did we know how far we would fall. Today the Palin debate summons feelings of nostalgia – not for Ms. Palin, but for an era when she seemed an anomaly instead of a harbinger.

On Sunday night, I watched the debate on the Washington University campus, surrounded by students who are casting their first votes in the vilest election in U.S. history. Some students coped through gallows humour, holding signs proclaiming things such "George Washington grabbed Martha by the pussy." That sign is not a provocation but an echo, because grabbing women "by the pussy" is now part of the national lexicon, thanks to the tape of Donald Trump's graphic comments about women. Theirs is the era of grope and change.

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Who won the debate? Does it matter? When this country has sunk this low – after a year dominated by bigotry and threats and now revelations about sexual assault – is it possible to contemplate anything but loss? Loss of trust, loss of respect, loss of dignity, loss of purpose. Loss of faith in our leaders, loss of faith in each other – in the ability of our media to challenge a candidate's worst behaviour instead of exploiting it for profit, in the willingness of our leaders to defend the most vulnerable instead of exacerbating their pain.

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel," wrote poet Maya Angelou, a St. Louis native. Sunday night, 10 kilometres from Ms. Angelou's childhood home, Mr. Trump took the stage and stereotyped black Americans, insulted Muslims, threatened to jail his opponent, and lied so blatantly about his past statements that we were forced to remember what exactly the Republican nominee had said about checking out that sex tape.

Ms. Angelou was right: You never forget how someone made you feel. What we felt was gross, and sad, and scared. The campus felt coated in slime. The debate was a lurid soap opera, in which everything unsaid loomed larger than what was spoken.

The stagecraft lent itself to grotesque microdramas of physical exchange. You may not remember what the candidates said, but you'll remember that they did not shake hands at the start of the debate. You'll remember how he stood behind Hillary Clinton, hulking and hovering. You'll remember his strange sniffing, his ceaseless interruptions, and her withering disdain.

This debate was in the town-hall format, where ordinary citizens are supposed to set the tone. Instead, St. Louisans sat like hostage witnesses to a nasty and intensely personal conflict. The moderators fought to allow them to ask questions, but Mr. Trump ranted on about Wikileaks, e-mails, Ms. Clinton being the devil, Michelle Obama secretly hating her. That was all part of one answer, and I have since forgotten the question, for the main thing his response conveyed is that something is deeply wrong with this man.

The moderators were managing a toddler – a toddler who may get access to nukes.

At one point, a St. Louis Muslim woman asked the candidates what they would do about rising Islamophobia. I watched in horror as Mr. Trump spoke not of protecting Muslims but of protecting citizens from Muslims, implying that all Muslims were terrorists right to her face. Her own safety as a Muslim woman was not even secondary, it was a non-issue. When Mr. Trump brought up slain Muslim soldier Humayun Khan, it was only as a prop, not as a human being. He claimed Captain Khan would have lived had Mr. Trump been president – as if he had not viciously insulted both of Capt. Khan's parents; as if Mr. Trump had not repeatedly threatened to deport and ban Muslims, including citizens like the woman who asked the question.

Mr. Trump talks about people – and to people – as if they are not real, and as if their pain does not really exist. As time passes, I am sure I will forget his exact words, but I will never forget how his response to that woman made me feel. Because quietly, at that moment, I started to cry.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this column stated incorrectly that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump did not shake hands. While they did not shake hands at the start of the debate, they did at the conclusion.

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