The third and final debate of the 2016 presidential campaign is over. It was arguably the more policy-focused of the debates, with specific questions on the Supreme Court, gun violence, abortion access, immigration, and international relations. It seemed clear that Trump had been sternly warned to rein it in, as he was (in some ways) more restrained than ever — a marked decrease in sniffling, a noticeable downturn in interruptions (at least at the beginning of the debate), slightly more coherence and follow-through on finishing sentences than we’re used to seeing. Hillary, on the other hand, was in the finest form we’ve seen her; she had an answer for every question, no matter how “gotcha”-oriented; was ready for Donald Trump’s every insult and smear attempt; she calmly withstood every hamfisted attempt to goad her with emails or the Clinton Foundation and turned the strategy on Donald, leaving him blustering and sputtering over Putin and Alicia Machado and, maybe most embarrassing for him, his obsession with winning an Emmy for The Apprentice.
The rumors that Trump is trying to push today that Hillary gets debate questions given to her in advance is, of course, false, but Hillary’s debate performance was indeed so fluid that it rivals some scripted TV moments.
Vox has a piece today on the way in which her strategy was masterful, and how she’s taken advantage of the very temperament she’s said makes him unfit to be President to irritate him until he “falls apart, gets angrier, launches bizarre personal attacks, offers rambling justifications for his own behavior, and loses the thread of whatever question was actually asked of him.”
We can all see how well it’s worked. Where his Republican rivals generally tried to out-dominate his desire to dominate, trying to prove they were a bigger man than the guy who thinks he’s the biggest man in every room, Hillary and her team have instead chosen to play on his fears: that he might not be, and that in fact someone somewhere might be laughing at him. In this debate, it paid off with Donald’s muttered insult that Hillary is “such a nasty woman,” argued pathetically that he deserves an Emmy, and perhaps most damningly, told the moderator that he wasn’t willing to confirm that he would accept the results of the election, and instead wants to keep America “in suspense.” (As of today, his position seems to be that he will accept the results “if he wins.”)
Aside from being historically delusional and unprofessional, this move on his part, I think, reveals something else: Donald Trump isn’t going to win the presidency, and he knows it. As Hillary herself pointed out during the debate, “Every time Donald thinks things are not going in his direction, he claims whatever it is, is rigged against him… this is a mindset. This is how Donald thinks. And it’s funny, but it’s also really troubling.” Of course, Trump has been claiming that the election is rigged for weeks now, and even during the debate made some bizarre claims about voters that he, unfortunately, was not pressed to defend or explain — “if you look at your voter rolls, you will see millions of people that are registered to vote — millions, this isn’t coming from me — this is coming from Pew Report and other places — millions of people that are registered to vote that shouldn’t be registered to vote.”
— Official Team Trump (@TeamTrump) October 18, 2016
Yet more evidence of a media-rigged election: https://t.co/rVh4ocgx3r
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2016
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2016
Even while debating, Trump’s rhetorical choices betrayed pessimism. He’s doubled down on his position that it is somehow Hillary Clinton’s fault personally that he avoided paying taxes by taking advantage of a giant loophole, because she didn’t personally address the issue with the tax law. Last night he also introduced the idea that Hillary has previously supported the idea of a wall between the US and Mexico, which is confusing because he also still holds both the positions that a wall is a good idea and that Hillary supports “open borders.” To some degree, he recognizes that his campaign is sinking, and his last-minute move is to try to then associate his opponent with it, to link her to his bad ideas. When arguing that Hillary’s approach to the Syrian refugee crisis wouldn’t work, he didn’t pin the point by saying we should vote for him instead; instead, he said “Lots of luck, Hillary — thanks for doing a great job.” It was sarcastic, but it was also an admission of defeat.
Many, many women of many, many different backgrounds have remarked throughout the campaign how much Trump reminds them of dangerous, abusive men in their lives: his gaslighting, his attacks on women that he sees as rejecting him or not meeting his standards, his documented sexual assault. Now he’s continuing to do what other abusive men do when they realize that they can’t prevent a woman from doing or having something: try to make it as painful as possible for her as a punishment. If he has to lose the presidency, he’ll leave us with angry, agitated supporters who believe that something has been taken from them; that they’ve been robbed of something they deserved, a President who “understood” them and their values, by their fellow Americans.
It’s a dangerous prospect: We not have documentation of some Trump supporters either attempting to harm those targeted by Trump’s rhetoric, like the three men who attempted to bomb Somali refugees in Kansas; or succeeding in doing so, like the man who assaulted Muslim and Latino students because they interrupted his verbal abuse of a black man, or the woman who attacked two Muslim women with their children, or the woman who smashed her beer glass in another woman’s face because she was speaking Swahili.
Asma Jama, the woman who was attacked, told local news, “I won’t be the last victim if things don’t change.” Trump may not become President, and it seems like even he is increasingly aware of that, but he’ll make sure that he’s made his mark regardless, and that his supporters are ready to start living in Trump’s America on November 9 regardless of who wins the election. Unfortunately, no matter how well Hillary debates, it’s going to be difficult for her or anyone else to reckon with everything he’s wrought.