Donald Trump may have performed better in Wednesday’s third presidential debate than in his two previous appearances, but he blew it, big time, when he refused to commit to accepting the outcome of the November 8 elections.
“I’ll keep you in suspense,” Trump said, proving once again that he doesn’t play by the rules. He may have enthused his most die-hard supporters but he alienated the last remaining uncommitted voters, without whom he has no chance of overcoming Clinton’s daunting advantage in the polls. It was, in many ways, a self-inflicted coup de grace to his campaign.
Many people thought that Trump was better in the first part of the debate, held at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, which seemed more debate-oriented than the previous two. He may have given fleeting moments of hope to Republican leaders, who are growing increasingly fearful of a total down-ballot collapse in the upcoming elections.
But, as before, Trump grew weaker as the debate went on, became increasingly incoherent, praised dictators such as Vladimir Putin and Bashar Assad and found a way, sure as clockwork, to insult women. “What a nasty woman,” he whispered twice, towards the end of the debate, as Clinton was speaking, as if to remind anyone who’s forgotten about his basic misogynist outlook.
This was the debate that Trump had to land a devastating blow on Clinton, and he didn’t. This was the debate that Clinton needed to collapse on the floor in order to allow Trump to get back on his feet, but that didn’t happen either. Trump may have rattled Clinton once or twice, when he spoke about the WikiLeaks revelations or the latest allegations that Democrats purposely encouraged violence at his campaign events, but for the most part Clinton kept her cool and gave Trump more than he had bargained for.
When Trump once again cited Bernie Sanders’ saying that Clinton had bad judgment, she retorted with Sanders’ description of Trump as “the most dangerous person to run for president in the modern history of America.” Pausing for effect, Clinton added, “I think he's right.”
This is likely to be the message of many editorials and op-eds in the wake of Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the elections in advance, which will also capture most of the main headlines from the debate. The fallout would have possibly been less severe if Trump had limited his statement to a scenario of a very tight race, but he didn’t do so.
Instead he will be perceived as undermining the very basis of U.S. democracy and to be dangerously close to inciting his most loyal supporters, who are susceptible to such conspiracy theories, to confronting the authorities, even violently, if – but most probably when – Trump loses the elections. It’s hard to think of a more reckless position by a presidential candidate.
Trump’s position is a natural extension of the delegitimization campaign that he has been waging against the American electoral process in the weeks since his poll numbers have plummeted. Trump is refusing to accept the possibility that he can be beaten fair and square by Clinton and, according to many observers, by any woman. Trump also seems almost physically incapable of retracting for apologizing for things he’s said, unless it’s to deny he ever said them in the first place.
Trump for example said at the debate that he doesn’t know the women who have complained against him, even though many of his encounters with them are documented. He said their accusations of his assaults have been debunked, which is patently untrue. When Clinton lambasted him on his attitude toward women, he replied with his staple “Nobody has more respect for women than me, nobody”, and the crowd at the auditorium in Las Vegas erupted in laughter.
He was better when moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News asked about Supreme Court appointments, a topic which manages to muster fear of a Clinton presidency even among conservatives who have disavowed Trump. But he probably didn’t get many new female supporters when he intimated that he would support a Supreme Court revocation of the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Some right wing analysts were also enthused about Trump’s replies on the economy, taxation and free trade.
Trump was weaker on Russian hacking, when he once again refused to accept the universal assessment of U.S. intelligence services that Moscow was behind the infiltration of Democratic computers. He was all over the place on the current offensive on the Iraqi city of Mosul, saying it would only benefit Iran and suggesting that somehow such a massive undertaking could and should have been kept secret.
He was praised by his own advisers, of course, but also by some television analysts, though a rereading of the transcript of the debate reveals that many of his sentences do not add up to a logical sequence or cohesive idea. The aura of a Trump triumph may also dissipate given the probability that many of his statements will be found to have been factually challenged and detached from reality.
But Trump may have been able to ignore such criticisms, given the low expectations by which he’s judged, and to depict his appearance as a triumph, if it hadn’t been for his refusal to accept the results of the elections.
As for Clinton, she was well-versed, well-prepared and well-organized, as usual. With the possible exception of one or two instances in which she seemed truly angry, she did not lose her cool but did not spark true enthusiasm either. She conducts herself in a manner that might once have been considered ideal for a president, but will now be criticized for failing to “connect” to her audience or to touch them personally.
Nonetheless, her objective was to emerge from the debate unscathed, and she probably achieved her goal. It should be enough to see Clinton elected in 19 days as the first women president of the United States, a historic watershed achievement that gets lost in the hubbub that always envelops Donald Trump.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now