David Faris | (Informed Comment) | – –
In weighted opinion polls, Hillary Clinton crushed Donald J. Trump in Wednesday night’s debate, with a 10 to 13 percent spread.
On Wednesday night, an accomplished, intelligent woman with painstakingly constructed plans for the future of American society and a wonk’s grasp on policy once again spent 90 minutes on stage “debating” a serial sex assaulter who spent the evening unfurling a long banner of unrepentant lies, outrageous distortions, racial hysteria and delusional flat-Earthism across the stage. Once again the Republican nominee and his crack team of Molotov Cocktail-hurlers turned the proceedings into daytime television by inviting the Ghosts of Clinton Past and a squadron of grieving mothers in front of the cameras in a pitiful and desperate bid to rattle the world’s most unshakeable woman. And once again, the whole deplorable spectacle failed miserably for him.
This is not new. Clinton soundly defeated Trump in the first two debates, and it has shifted public opinion accordingly, reversing the mid-September tightening of the race and making Republicans nervous about a full-scale election night wave. It did not help that Trump spent the three weeks following the first debate having a long, painful and very public emotional meltdown topped off by a series of revelations that he enjoys sexually assaulting women.
Yet in the third and final debate, Clinton didn’t just defeat Trump. She methodically dismantled him, first cornering him on policy and then getting so far under his skin that the sniveling, unmoored character from the first debate returned and promised not to accept the results of the election. That Trump was coming unglued should have been obvious from the very first moments of the debate, when he used his opening remarks to complain about how Ruth Bader Ginsburg was mean to him and said that after a Clinton presidency we would have a “very, very small replica” of the second amendment. What it would mean for the country to be left with a hobbyist’s miniature of a constitutional amendment was thankfully left unsaid. Imagine the tiny militias! And it was in those opening remarks too that he made his first outrageous claim of the night, and one that will probably be lost amid the kerfuffle over his craziest behavior – the idea that Supreme Court justices shouldn’t get to choose the cases they hear. This is, how shall we say, not how it works.
Still, you might initially have mistaken this for a normal debate. The outline of the first few exchanges was an almost comforting rehash of the past back-and-forths between Republicans and Democrats on guns and abortion that we didn’t even realize we were wistful about, like when you go home to visit your parents and you fall back into old adolescent rhythms and start crying when you pour yourself a bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats (which you never even eat anymore!). For a hot minute or so, you might even have thought this was a draw, when Clinton started talking somewhat strangely about how too many toddlers are dying of gun violence and Trump name-checked Chicago as his stand-in for the kind of urban hellholes in which he will never again be able to successfully operate a business after this election. But even in these seemingly mundane early minutes, Trump was starting to do some weird things. The sniffing was back. He talked about late-term abortion as a process wherein someone tries to “rip a baby out of the womb,” a needlessly graphic and cringe-inducing and of course completely inaccurate phrase that will still be ringing painfully in the ears of the tens of millions of women he needs to win over to have a chance next month. He slipped directly from this unforced error into his jaw-dropping comment that “bad hombres” are pouring across the southern border to menace the good people of New Hampshire with opiates. It was at this point that everyone at RNC headquarters began shaking their damn heads.
It was here also that Clinton began to diverge from her earlier performances. Even in the first third of the contest, it was clear she had decided to stop playing nice and to dig her knife into the hollow cavity where most people host their policy knowledge or their hearts and where Trump probably keeps a little black book of notes on his sexual conquests. There were fewer moments where she stared off into space, silently stifling her screams and taking the high road while he man-ranted incoherently. And by pushing back forcefully, Clinton managed to stand her ground as the high road candidate while simultaneously firing off a series of sick burns. She calmly gutted Trump by noting that he used undocumented labor in his businesses. This ploy caused Trump to veer off-script and talk about how many millions of people Obama has deported. He refused to distance himself from the Wikileaks espionage, which in addition to being a problematic policy position, makes no campaign sense either. The Wikileaks Podesta dumps could be compiled into the world’s dullest ebook tomorrow morning. No one cares and it’s not for lack of trying. Earlier this week CNN breathlessly did a segment about the “revelation” that Nancy Pelosi was reluctant to endorse Clinton. I’m sure there was total bedlam at Clinton Headquarters about this huge scoop.
It was when Clinton, again calmly, noted that Vladimir Putin wants a puppet as the American president that things really deteriorated for Trump. He churlishly shouted “You’re the puppet! You’re the puppet!” at Clinton while she was still talking. He started calling her Hillary. The sniffing accelerated, as if he was wearing Kramer’s wool sweater from Seinfeld. Clinton killed America with competence for several minutes about jobs, and Trump pivoted, completely bizarrely, back to demanding extortion money from NATO countries like Tony Soprano in a terrible suit. He repeatedly used the menacing phrase “pay up” to describe our expectations of other sovereign countries. It does not help that he has mobster hair. He ranted strangely about how we will “have more free trade than we have now,” but that it will somehow be more fair. Clinton spiked the volleyball by noting that Trump had used Chinese steel (the horror!) to build his hotel in Vegas.
He walked right into another trap by repeating his odd claim that Clinton has achieved nothing in 30 years and allowing her to basically read her long and amazing resume to the American people. He responded to Wallace’s question about accusations of sexual assault by saying that they had been “largely debunked” and then moving on, implicitly admitting of course that some of the accusations were true and reminding America that he didn’t even apologize to Melania and now let’s change the subject please. When Clinton observed that Trump basically said he only rapes pretty girls, Trump added interrupting to the sniffing to complete his transformation back into the unhinged weirdo from the first debate that we can now be confident is who this guy actually is. And happily, Clinton made the case about why Trump’s behavior is wrong more comprehensively and eloquently than in the second debate. She said, “Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger. He goes after their dignity, their self-worth, and I don’t think there is a woman anywhere that doesn’t know what that feels like.” The whole exchange about sexual assault ended with Trump absurdly saying that “nobody has more respect for woman than I do,” the audience breaking out into shocked laughter and Trump launching into a diatribe about Clinton’s emails.
After goading Trump some more by noting the six-foot portrait of himself that he bought with Trump Foundation money, Clinton had set Trump up perfectly for the only moment from this evening that anyone will truly remember. Wallace asked Trump point blank whether he would accept the legitimacy of an election that he is now poised to lose by double digits, and Trump said, “I will look at it at the time.” This stunning refusal to abide by even basic norms of democratic decency will dominate headlines for the next ten days. It forced Chris Wallace to explain to this boorish imbecile what a peaceful transfer of power looks like in democratic countries. Trump’s final reply? “I’ll keep you in suspense.” At this point, he was so out of his mind that when Clinton needled him about Tweeting that the Emmy’s were rigged against him, he leaned into the microphone and said “Should’ve gotten it.” For serious, Brian Fallon and Robbie Mook could have written the transcript of this debate themselves, and it could not possibly have gone any better for her.
At this point, the debate was comprehensively over. It was Trump’s last chance to prove to America that he is a remotely sensible and competent person who can at least pretend to be an adult on national television for 90 consecutive minutes. He failed this minimal test in a hundred ways. This is a man who is more gullible than my 5-year-old nephew. You could walk into his office in Trump Tower and tell him they’ve decided to cancel Christmas this year, and his eyes would go wide with shock and he’d immediately send out 13 Tweets about the War on Christmas. The man is a Snopes article with a ragged pulse.
Who knew that of all people, it would be Fox’s Chris Wallace who brought some semblance of order to these proceedings. Since the Commission released the details about the debate moderators, Democrats have worried that Wallace would try to throw the final debate to Trump before the election. And indeed, as many have noted, his questions were almost always posed with a right-wing narrative frame. This is a problem that needs to be addressed by the Commission, because this wasn’t the only debate where that was true. But otherwise he was the only moderator who both stayed largely on substantive issues and kept Trump in line. His predecessors in the role either embarrassed themselves by getting talked over (Lester Holt in the first tilt and Elaine Quijano in the Vice Presidential Debate) or impersonating a Politico reporter by fixating on campaign arcana (Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper). He even tried to shut the crowd up. Four stars out of five.
I can only imagine the panic in Republican campaign offices across the country. At the debate, Trump locked himself into the cockpit of GOP Flight 2016 and aimed the plane directly for the nearest mountain, while Reince Preibus and Paul Ryan still sat calmly in first class sipping champagne instead of banging desperately on the door. The conclusion most people drew, finally, last night was this: The Republican Party has nominated a complete asshole to be the President of the United States and we don’t want that. The GOP is now headed for the electoral massacre that they have so richly deserved for the past six years.
And we deserve it too. This obscene election has now been going on for more than 14 months, since the 16-member red-shirted Republican Away Team beamed into Cleveland to debate Donald Trump on August 6th, 2015. In defiance of all punditry and political science wisdom, Trump dispatched these challengers one by one, ritually humiliating them before forcing nearly all of them to disavow their attacks on him and come crawling back, their dignity in tatters, in the hopes that there might be a place for them in a Trump Justice Department that will never exist. In the endless, torturous, psychological damaging months that have followed, we have run out of ways to be offended, of nightmares to be haunted by, of things to conclude about Trump and Trumpism. After a thousand think pieces about Trump voters, the pens have largely run out of ink. The Dream Palace of the Trumpians is utterly impenetrable. Mostly we just want to go to sleep.
Before we rest, though, the message sent to Trump and his supporters on November 8th must be unequivocal: there is no place for this kind of ugliness in our politics. If Trump loses by 4 or 5 points, Republican elites might come to a different conclusion. They might surmise that attached to a candidate who can avoid rage-Tweeting from a Golden Toilet at 3 a.m., these positions – mercantilism, ethnic cleansing, nativism, the sexual domination of women – might be electoral winners. A 10 or 12-point loss in a country that is close to evenly divided politically, on the other hand, sends a signal that even Mitch McConnell can’t misinterpret. It says that we can have sharp disagreements about economic and social issues. We can have a conversation about the boundaries of our political community, and to whom we should extend membership. We can struggle bitterly over the direction of health care policy and the Supreme Court. We don’t even have to like each other while we’re doing this.
But we cannot have one party whipping up its followers into a frothing racial mob. We cannot have one party delegitimizing the instruments of democracy, calling for the assassination or jailing of opponents. This kind of cynicism and hatefulness is corrosive to the piping of democracy. It must be repudiated in large enough numbers to leave no doubt whatsoever about what has transpired. It looks increasingly like this will happen. But if and when the Democrats do win this election, it will not feel particularly good.
It will feel like we all survived a plane crash.
David Faris is chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago. His books Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt (2013) (Here) and Social Media in Iran: Politics and Society After 2009 (Here) (with Babak Rahimi) focus on the use of digital media by social movements.
Related video added by Juan Cole: