Trump's meltdown in the third debate

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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For the first 35 or 40 minutes of last night's debate, I thought Donald Trump was having a good night. On the opening question about the Supreme Court, he knew how to shore up his base, reiterating his commitment to the Second Amendment and speaking forcefully, albeit graphically, about late-term abortion. On immigration, he did not take the bait when Hillary Clinton charged him with building Trump Tower with undocumented workers. And his comments on trade scored strongly.

But then, for the rest of the debate, gradually at first, and completely by the end of the evening, Trump looked more and more like he was doing his best impersonation of Alec Baldwin impersonating Trump. The interruptions began again. "Such a nasty woman," he scowled at her in the debate's final minutes. The snorting and heavy breathing grew more loud, and the nervous sips of water became more frequent. While not as bad as in the first debate, his answers grew more and more incoherent. Instead of catapulting himself back into the race, he once again proved unequal to the task. The man who famously relies on his own instincts did himself in.

The coup de grace of his self-inflicted wounds was his failure to say that he would honor the results of the election. Go back and watch the video. Chris Wallace, who did an admirable job of moderating the debate, not only raised the issue in such a way that everyone but the Donald knew this should be a lay-up, but also after Trump botched it, Wallace went back to him, to give him another chance to put the ball in the basket, as if Wallace couldn't believe what he had just heard: "But, sir, there is a tradition in this country -- in fact, one of the prides of this country -- is the peaceful transition of power and that no matter how hard-fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign that the loser concedes to the winner," Wallace said. "Not saying that you're necessarily going to be the loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner and that the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you're not prepared now to commit to that principle?" When someone starts a question with, "But, sir ..." you are being invited to reconsider.

The earlier points Trump scored on trade and immigration and the Supreme Court vanished. The Washington Post headline this morning: "Trump won't vow to honor results." More importantly, the headline in this morning's Orlando Sentinel is the same: "Trump won't pledge to accept election result in final debate with Clinton."

Trump can't win the presidency without Florida, and he can't win Florida without the support of the people reading their Orlando Sentinel this morning. And those people are reading that Donald Trump is not quite willing to trust them, not willing to admit that the decision about who will be the next president belongs with the people. Those readers are recognizing that while his conspiracy theories against the Clintons may even sound plausible to them, this is a conspiracy theory designed to rob the voter of her rights. These voters may have stood for election themselves, to the school board or to the parish council, and known that the price of participation is an agreement to abide by the result.

The fact that none of this seems to have dawned on the Donald attests to one of the central lessons of this election: There is a lot to be said for familiarity with the democratic process before getting into it, and doing so at the highest level. His signature line, the line that most appeals to those who feel disenfranchised and left out of the nation's prosperity, is that he, as a businessman, can fix what is wrong in Washington, that it takes someone like him, and only him, to make America great again. In a flash, he demonstrated definitively that he does not know the first thing about what makes America great. 

Clinton was steady last night, but she did not "win" the debate so much as Trump lost it. On guns, she was clearly aiming for the center of the electorate, pledging her support for the Second Amendment but arguing that common sense gun control was needed. She aimed to reassure both hunters and suburban moms in Pennsylvania. On immigration, she gave a forceful and humane response: "I don't want to rip families apart." On Roe v. Wade, while I disagree with her position, she did not go to the alt-left position articulated by NARAL, that abortion is a good thing, but focused on the painfulness of making that decision. Her comments on the economy were a pitch to the middle class, but she lacked the framing of the issue to make her case a compelling one.

In the back-and-forth on Putin, I do not think she achieved much, but while Trump was incoherent in discussing Mosul, she was the essence of informed competence. On the subject of Trump's comments about women, Clinton channeled empathy for the women who had been demeaned or worse, by him and others, and did so in such a way as to invite solidarity from moderate Republican women: "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 who doesn't know what that feels like." That was a powerful and effective response.

Clinton's strongest moment came in response to Trump's worst moment. After Chris Wallace gave him another shot at the question about accepting the results, and after Trump again failed to give the obvious answer, Clinton pounced: "Well, Chris, let me respond to that, because that's horrifying." Indeed it is. Game, set, match.

I look at the calendar, and we still have more than two weeks until election day. They will be a long two weeks. Trump will only grow more reckless. Clinton is well advised to make clear what her top legislative priorities are so she can claim a mandate, but she will likely keep her head down and hope to run out the clock. In the next couple of days, Republicans running down the ballot have to decide whether to cut loose from Trump or not, once and for all. An anxious country, ready for change, will recognize the value of continuity, given the only available alternative, but they won't like it. There is nothing in the recipe that indicates we will end up with anything like a mandate or even a consensus, except on one point: The American people will reject Trump and Trumpism. That is not nothing, and it is more than the GOP primary electorate achieved. But, the bar has been set so terribly low and who is to say that a future demagogue, who does not have a history of assaulting women and bragging about it, will not succeed where Trump has failed?

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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