To understand a debate like this we need to begin with the context. Winning or losing debates doesn’t matter. Mike Pence arguably won the Veep debate; but the net effect of the debate hurt his ticket. All that really matters is the impact debates have on the election outcome. Hillary Clinton now has a sizable lead. Trump was the one who needed to dramatically shift the trajectory of the election. By that measure, he clearly failed.
It’s also worth comparing this debate to the first two.
Trump had clearly prepared more for this debate. He was more disciplined than in the first debate and lacked the some of the bellicosity of the second. I couldn’t help noticing that he’d been prepped about not making sarcastic or grimacing expressions while Clinton was speaking. Not unlike in the first debate, he kept his cool reasonably well for the first twenty to twenty-five minutes. But coming up on a half hour in Clinton started to get under his skin, started to get him angry. Yet it didn’t quite play out as it did in the first debate where he basically fell apart for the last hour and got pummeled. He avoided the same kind of complete collapse. He was mostly able to right himself and had some decent moments late in the debate.
But those are all optics and preparation. The substance of the debate came down to two things. Clinton was able to deliver a handful of stinging blows against Trump, going so far as to call him a “puppet” of Vladimir Putin. This was preceded by a brutal recitation of evidence that Trump is willingly going along with a foreign power trying to interfere in a US election. Later in the debate she went after him on his very long history of saying he was cheated or contests were “rigged” when he’s simply losing. These runs focused attention on Trump’s most dangerous qualities. He could do little to rebut them and he shot back, quaking with angry jabs here and there like “such a nasty woman.”
Far more important however were the statements Clinton and Chris Wallace provoked from Trump. The biggest one of course was his repeated refusal to accept the result of a democratic election. When Wallace first asked Trump said: “I will look at it at the time.”
When Wallace pressed him again he said: “I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?”
That kind of ‘suspense” is precisely what makes democratic polities collapse. Vicious cycles of civic violence and violations of democratic norms have the pernicious effect of distorting and transforming the behavior of those who actually do believe in democratic institutions. They create a setting in which it becomes rational to take steps that undermine them further. If you really don’t know if your opponent will accept the result of the election, you start taking steps to guard against what happens if he doesn’t. You take steps to protect yourself, your political future, maybe even your safety and property. This is the death spiral of democracies.
It is hard to weigh in the balance Trump’s violations of our democratic order and judge which is the worst. But this was a considerably greater violation than the pledge to jail Clinton if he becomes president, though that was, as former Attorney General Michael Mukasey accurately put it, “a watershed.” Yet they are both parts of the same civic cancer: politics through raw power and violence, as opposed to a combat of political forces, often unruly, mediated by the rule of law and respect for democratic institutions. The universal acceptance of those core rules allows everything that is vital in politics take to place. It’s really that bad.
What I find notable is that Trump not only has little respect for our democratic institutions, his mindset and worldview make it impossible for him to answer that question in a truly democratic, American way. For Trump, life is deal making and power plays. It’s dominance. Who negotiates with himself? Sure, I’ll probably accept the results but let me keep you guessing. Like anyone who deals in zero-sum adversary negotiations and operates in a mental world of dominance, the answer makes perfect sense. Why should I show you my cards when I don’t have to? But of course, in a democracy, under the rule of law, there are lines we never cross. We all genuflect at the altar of elections. Because of his primitive mentality and indifference to democratic government this was impossible for him to see.
I suspect many among Trump’s core supporters will thrill to his defiance. But again, those people don’t amount to nearly enough votes to win the election. From the very start of the general election campaign the biggest liability Trump has carried is the perception that he lacks the temperament, emotional stability and judgment to be president. He confirmed that a thousand times over tonight.
We could pick over the transcript for denials about the numerous sexual assault accusers, Syrian no fly zones, ISIS, this attack and that attack. There were countless snorts, unlovely phrases, distortions and falsehoods here and there, just as we had in the earlier debates. I barely remembered his outrageous claim that the long planned assault on Mosul was a campaign ploy to help Clinton. But this is what mattered in this debate. I suspect it will remain a dominant theme throughout the remaining three weeks of the campaign. And I’m confident this debate and that answer will be discussed, likely taught, for decades into the future.