Rick Wilking/ Reuters
Donald Trump made headlines by refusing to say he’d accept the results of the presidential election. But moderator Chris Wallace held off anarchy during the third presidential debate last night, leading the candidates through a substantive discussion of the issues—from gun control to abortion to immigration—and enforcing order.
It was a relief after the tawdry and chaotic second debate.
It was also a slam-dunk win for Hillary Clinton, who gave detailed answers and coolly defended herself against an increasingly aggressive and incoherent opponent.
Donald Trump held it together for the first half-hour, then began to look like his Saturday Night Live impersonator Alec Baldwin, interrupting Clinton to say “Wrong!” and “What a nasty woman!”
If women decide the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, things are looking bad for Trump. On abortion, Hillary gave a thoughtful answer about letting women make their own decisions. Pressed on late-term abortion, she was clear and unequivocal. She described the agonizing situations in which women who seek the procedure find themselves, and said:
“I don’t believe the United States government should step in and make those decisions.”
Trump, in contrast, dove into a ghoulish and preposterous description of how doctors “rip the baby out” a day or two before it would have been born.
The idea that women choose abortion in the delivery room is classic tabloid Trump.
Likewise, he used the final debate to come up with a specific jail term for Hillary, declaring that she would be imprisoned for “five years.”
In the same breath as his refusal to say he’d accept the outcome of the election, Trump declared that Hillary Clinton’s being “allowed” to be a candidate is evidence enough that our whole democratic system is “rigged.”
Clinton didn’t have to work that hard to appear more presidential.
When Clinton implied that Putin regards Trump as a potential puppet, Trump ejaculated:
“No puppet! You’re a puppet!”
At times, Clinton seemed to be enjoying herself. Batting back Trump’s attacks on the Clinton foundation, she pointed out that the Trump Foundation used donors’ money to buy a six-foot portrait of Trump:
“I mean, who does that?”
Even where Trump had real ammunition, as when he brought up a recent rightwing sting that produced video of Democratic operatives bragging that they provoked unstable Trump supporters to violence at his rallies, Trump blew it. He claimed, absurdly, that Hillary herself was “on tape” encouraging the violence.
Hillary delivered a couple of devastating litanies of Trumpisms. One was on his whining about everything from the Republican primaries to the general election to the Emmy Awards being “rigged” when he lost. Another was on his hideous treatment of women.
“No one respects women more than I do. No one.” The debate audience broke out in laughter.
The whole sad spectacle of the general election will soon be over. Unless Trump gets his supporters to show up and shoot voters at the polls, he will almost certainly lose.
No matter what happens, there will be casualties.
American democracy has been called into question, but will probably survive in its current, imperfect form. Trump will not likely be elected to appoint from among the “twenty Supreme Court nominees” he bragged about choosing in the debate.
On foreign policy, there is not much prospect of progress. The candidates both conceded that the Iraq War was a terrible mistake and supporting it—which both did, as Hillary Clinton admitted and Donald Trump denied—was an error. Neither candidate said anything to suggest that America has learned enough to avoid similar tragic decisions in the future.
Climate change came up not at all in this final debate, and hardly at all throughout the whole general election season. Yet both candidates and the moderator talked about avoiding running up the (declining) U.S. deficit as if that were a real and imminent danger.
The racist and misogynist claptrap that Trump spews has had a real and damaging effect on immigrants and on the nation’s children, who are enduring more bullying in school, sanctioned by the Republican bully-in-chief.
The nonsense about voter fraud and stolen elections, which the Republicans have been peddling for years now, got new life from Trump. That may help fuel more efforts by Republicans to suppress voting by supposedly fraud-prone black and Latino voters and the poor—who in fact often don’t vote, but who the GOP likes to imagine have nothing better to do than go to the polls repeatedly on election day.
There may be incidents of violence, and there may be a large section of the public that further retreats into its parallel universe, where Obama is not a legitimate American and Hillary Clinton will not be a legitimate President That sort of divisiveness may not pull the country apart entirely, but it creates more incivility, a broader sense of alienation, and less cohesiveness.
It will be good to put all this uncivil discourse behind us. But we will have more noise to cut through as we try to achieve the more perfect union the founders envisioned and a majority of Americans still aspire to create.
Ruth Conniff is editor-in-chief of The Progressive.