I know that it’s way, way, way too late to try to do any serious deconstruction of a Donald Trump performance, but, like Trump on a debate stage, I can’t help myself. Somehow, even though I know better, I hold to the notion that a presidential election, even this one, must be a serious affair.
So, what was Trump thinking?
What deal was the great deal-maker trying to sell to the millions of Americans watching?
Because at some point, he must have said to himself, OK, I’ll toss my campaign manager, my running mate, my daughter, 240 years of history and the very foundation of the American project under the bus in order to — and we’re left assuming that this had to be it — keep my options open.
I mean, he knew, he had to know, that by refusing to commit to the time-honored notion in liberal democracies of accepting the results of the election/will of the people on Nov. 8, he may as well have been conceding defeat. All that’s left is the drama — “I’ll keep you in suspense,” Trump said — of whether Trump will concede, send in his lawyers or unleash his so-called “Second Amendment people.”
In a night full of story lines, this was the only story line. From up on the debate stage, in Las Vegas yet, Trump ran straight through the fourth wall to reveal to the audience that he’s still desperately trying to come up with an acceptable ending to his long-running campaign show that somehow will work despite the specter of his inevitable defeat.
The night didn’t begin that way. Moderator Chris Wallace was determined to discuss issues, and Trump was at his serious best. Even if he threw in some red meat for the fact-checking community, he was doing OK, which is to say he hadn’t seriously embarrassed himself.
But then came Hillary Clinton’s Putin-puppet line, and Trump came back sputtering with his, “No puppet, no puppet. You’re the puppet,” and that was it for the debate. Alec Baldwin’s Trump has a better chance of winning now than Donald Trump’s Trump. Once again, Trump was caught defending Putin because he couldn’t admit he made a mistake, and then he added some nice words for Assad because, in Trump’s political world, every homicidal dictator must still be superior to Obama and Clinton. You can imagine that whoever handles the nuclear codes was immediately resetting the password.
Ezra Klein writes a very convincing piece in Vox about how Clinton destroyed Trump in the three debates and exposed him for the thin-skinned, unprepared, unfit candidate that he is by cleverly baiting him, taking her time in each debate to push Trump’s buttons and then watch the implosions begin. She even baited him into criticizing Ronald Reagan. I know Trump has said that he could walk down Fifth Avenue shooting people and still not lose any voters — which may be true — but when he brought his small hands to a knife fight, he was lost.
It was rope-a-dope with a twist, the twist being that Trump barely laid a glove on Clinton. She still struggled on the email questions, on the Clinton Foundation questions, but Trump couldn’t prosecute effectively because he was too busy defending himself. It wasn’t as if everyone in America hadn’t seen this at the first debate, with its Miss Piggy ending and the 3 a.m. tweets that followed. It wasn’t as if everyone in the Trump camp didn’t understand that Trump, the narcissist, was being played. And yet. And yet.
Debates aren’t supposed to matter, but as Nate Silver points out, Clinton was 1.5 points ahead on the eve of Debate I, and now she’s seven points ahead and probably still climbing. I don’t know why it took this long for people to see the real Trump, but after four and a half hours on display, the worst has now become clear.
Twitter, I’m told, was all about the “bad hombres” line and Trump’s final interruption — “such a nasty woman” — in which he managed, in his last chance to change the course of the election, to cement Clinton’s hold on both the Latino vote and the female vote. Once again, he lost control, lost the practiced points of attack, lost everything but the all-consuming notion that Clinton had made it personal and all personal attacks must be answered.
Still, we must give Trump his due. Clinton didn’t bait him into saying he wouldn’t commit to accepting the outcome of the election. She didn’t bait him into conflating media bias with vote rigging. She didn’t bait him into saying, in effect, that his way of making America great was to undo everything that is great about America. The pro-Putin, anti-democracy look is Trump’s and Trump’s alone.
It still doesn’t explain Trump’s refusal to say he would accept the election results. He could have said that he would accept the results barring any extraordinary event, like the Bush-Gore triple-overtime ending. He could have said he expected to win, and that he probably wouldn’t really put Clinton in jail. He could have said anything other than what he said.
But this is what we saw: Chris Wallace asked him the question, Trump answered it by saying we’ll have to wait and see, and Wallace, effectively standing in for about 300 million people, tried to give Trump a lifeline by citing our history of peaceful transition and begging Trump to grab onto it.
Instead, Trump took peaceful transition and tossed it back in Wallace’s face.
“I will look at it at the time,” Trump said. “I will keep you in suspense.”
We know he says he has a secret plan to defeat ISIS. Now we wait to see if he also has one to defeat democracy.