Analysis Third Debate Is Drama, but Only an Alien Invasion Can Save Trump Now

With Trump, an unguided missile run amok, the unthinkable is probably to be expected. The question is, will we see the wily Clinton of the first debate or the passive one of the second?

Trump and Clinton during the second presidential debate in in St. Louis, Missouri, October 9, 2016.Paul J. Richards, AFP

Possibly inspired by Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval’s approval this week for a new NFL Stadium to be funded by Sheldon Adelson, the upcoming third and final presidential debate in Las Vegas between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is being dubbed “the Super Bowl of Debates.” In football terms, Trump needs a “hail Mary” that will outshine Aaron Rodger’s 61-yard stunner for the Green Bay Packers against the Detroit Lions last year. He has to do way better than Liverpool scoring three goals in six minutes against Milan in the 2005 Champions League Final. Trump has to be 100 times better than the 2004 Boston Red Sox, who came back from 4-3 with two outs in the ninth inning to take the American League Championship and then the World Series. 

In short, it’s a mission impossible. Trump has to stage the comeback to end all political comebacks. He needs to outdo Truman vs. Dewey, to eclipse Kennedy vs. Nixon, to make Brexit seem like the most unsurprising vote ever. Very few people, outside of his hardcore do-or-die fans, believe it’s still possible, and even if it was, whether he has it in him.

In order to erase Hillary Clinton’s eight-point advantage in the national polls, in order to overtake her advantage in all of the main battleground states - with the exception of Ohio, maybe - Trump needs to whip out a herd of rabbits from his hat. He can’t make do with a body blow or two, no matter how painful they may seem, when nothing less than a cluster bombardment, verbal of course, will do. But because we’re talking about Trump, an unguided missile who has now officially run amok, the unthinkable is probably to be expected, tensions are running high and what could be the bout of the century is slated to garner Super Bowl-size ratings.

Trump will try to exploit the latest revelations supplied by Wikileaks, which is now churning out John Podesta’s emails on a daily basis, as well as the latest exposures emanating from Clinton’s email scandal. The so called “quid pro quo” scandal between the FBI and the State Department, which is being promoted by Trump as the biggest political crime since Watergate, is failing to live up to the hype. According to the early sensationalist headlines, a senior State Department official offered to expand the FBI’s presence in Iraq in exchange for the agency’s willingness not to classify a cable about Benghazi found on Clinton’s illicit email server. It turns out, however, that A. There was no deal B. If anyone suggested it, it was apparently an FBI agent and not Patrick Kennedy at the State Department C. It’s all hearsay and D. Even if the suspicions are warranted, it probably won’t make that much of a difference.

Trump may well have passed the point of no return. He can no longer escape the death spiral of his candidacy. Not only has no one ever come back from such a big deficit in such a short time, but Trump continues to double his trouble day in and day out, as if the rumors that accompanied his early candidacy, that he is really a rogue agent sent by the Clintons to lose elections for the GOP, aren’t all that far fetched. 

Visitors pose for a selfie in Las Vegas, Nevada, ahead of the presidential debate, October 18, 2016.Daniel Acker, Bloomberg

After he compounded the damage caused by the tape of his gross talk about harassing women by debasing his female accusers; after he blasted the media for its lies and bias, lambasted the FBI and the Department of Justice for conspiring to obstruct justice and attacked Paul Ryan for his perceived perfidy - Trump got an earful on Tuesday from a group of Republican Secretaries of State. They told him that his talk about “rigged elections” is ludicrous. Perhaps Trump forgot, or maybe he never knew, that presidential elections are organized by states, and not by the federal government, and that Republicans run 31 of those states. Perhaps he found it hard to grasp his preposterous accusations of stolen elections paint his party’s state-level functionaries as accessories to a crime and as collaborators with the Democratic conspiracy.

This is why David Axelrod, former political strategist for Barack Obama, suggested to Clinton last week that she consider skipping the third debate altogether, because it entails a risk, however minimal. As long as Trump is harming himself, as long as he is doing whatever he can to alienate women, minorities and undecided voters, it’s better for Clinton to maintain a low profile and to let her rival talk himself to oblivion. But Clinton and her advisers apparently thought that staying away from the debate might be viewed as cowardice and opportunism. As someone who kept campaigning despite her pneumonia, Clinton was not going to be deterred by her redheaded and hotheaded rival.

The question is whether we will see the wily Clinton of the first debate, who goaded Trump into losing his composure, or the relatively passive Clinton of the second debate, who allowed Trump to maul her as he hovered menacingly behind her back. The physical set up of the state at the third debate at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, moderated by Fox News’s Chris Wallace, will have the two candidates standing at separate podiums, as they did in the first debate at Hofstra University in New York and not at the second debate, at Washington University in St. Louis, where they could freely roam the stage.

But the bottom line is that the New York Times gives Clinton a 91% chance of winning the elections; Nate Silver at 538 is a bit more cautious, putting Clinton’s chances at 88%. Of the three big battleground states, Pennsylvania seems lost for Trump, Florida is slipping from his fingers and the trend in Ohio is not going his way. Other swing states, including Virginia, Colorado and even North Carolina are leaning heavily in Clinton’s direction while supposedly safe GOP states, such as Arizona and Utah, seem to be in play. Trump’s only path to the presidency seems to be a dead end.

Of course one can’t discount the possibility of a deus ex machina that will emerge at the last minute and change everything, but at this point it would have to be a stark intervention on the scale of aliens saving Trump like they did Brian in the Monty Python movie. More realistic Republicans are praying for this thing to be over and for their party to suffer a defeat rather than a catastrophe. They want to be at the stage where they can pretend that Trump was just a bad dream and to get on with rehabilitating their party, on the assumption that there will be anything left worth saving.