The third United States presidential election debate was running along predictable lines until Donald Trump said, in an extension of his recent aspersions that the election was and would be rigged, that he would not say now whether he would accept the result: “I’ll keep you in suspense”.
It was fitting, perhaps, that the Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump debate was held in Las Vegas. The steady stream of factual inexactitudes on the part of Trump set off pings like the incessant sound of fruit machines. Now and then, there was a crescendo of sound, the resonance of a zinger landing.
Clinton may have written the epitaph of the entire dismaying spectacle that this US election campaign has been when she said, “This is how Donald thinks. It’s funny but it’s also appalling”.
Indeed. Trump has been the jackpot for Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert and many others, to say nothing of those who have the ample leisure time to whip up internet memes.
But in all these months the laughter at Trump’s absurdities has had a darker side, and in more recent days, a sense of him becoming an increasingly tragic – tragic, not sympathetic – figure as what remains of his campaign descends into bathos.
Challenged directly on the principle of, whether he won or lost (though the sub-text in moderator Chris Wallace’s question was clear), he would accept the election result, Trump replied: “I will tell you at the time. I will keep you in suspense”.
It is trite to say that he lost the debate, as he lost the previous two.
The stream of inaccuracies is by now familiar: Misstatements about Clinton’s positions on the second amendment, on termination of pregnancy, on “open borders”, on already-debunked claims about the State Department, at the time Clinton was its Secretary, having $6 billion go missing. Trump claimed, among other untruths, that he has the endorsement of ICE – a government agency that by nature does not endorse political candidates. And so (wearily, by now) on.
Once again, in this debate, Clinton did not have to do much, in spite of her own vulnerabilities. It was a reminder of the difficulty she would have faced had she been up against a Republican nominee who actually had credibility.
Such is the offensiveness of Trump’s rhetoric that it is easy not to be mindful that, in succeeding in lowering to the abysmal depths the tone of this election, Clinton too is dealing in insults in a way much worse than in previous American presidential debates.
We are no longer in the mode of a gentle but telling rebuke, “There you go again”.
Now we are in the mode of one candidate telling another that he is the puppet of a foreign leader – as Clinton did with Trump in calling him a puppet of Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
That came amid a telling charge laid against Trump by Clinton, in which she pointed to 17 intelligence and security agencies saying that the Wikileaks dumps involved espionage against Americans, coming from the highest levels of the Russian government, from Putin himself.
Trump sounded like a Putinbot on a BTL forum as he mouthed about how it would be nice if Russia and the US “got along well” and went on to say that Putin had no respect for Clinton or for President Obama.
“That’s because he wants a puppet,” retorted Clinton, who made it abundantly clear which puppet she had in mind.
Clinton scored easily in her contrasting of her 30-year career in public life against Trump’s own. She succeeded in slipping in a claim that the Trump building in Las Vegas had used Chinese steel, of the kind dumped on US markets that Trump had tried to use to rail against the impact of past trade deals that he condemned.
“Only one of us on this stage shipped jobs to Mexico and that’s Donald,” Clinton said.
Trump, asked by Wallace about conservative economists who had said that the numbers in his economic plan did not add up, simply ducked the question.
The much-anticipated moment when Trump was asked about the flow of allegations against him regarding sexual assault was met with flat denials, with him saying that these allegations had all been “debunked” and with him repeating that those involved either were fame-seekers or working for the Clinton campaign.
In turn, Clinton never specifically responded to Trump’s charges that the violence at his rallies had been caused by agents provocateur working for her. However her campaign deals with that challenge in the media, Clinton should have responded, in front of the last of the giant television audiences in this election, but did not.
She did manage a telling indictment against Trump, of his record of calling “rigged” in the face of every defeat – from the Iowa caucuses to the Wisconsin primaries to even, apparently, the Emmys.
It was Trump who provided the headline and the talking point from this debate, in not clarifying whether he would accept the election result.
Given statements by Republican leaders in recent days, and from the White House and other commentators, Clinton is undoubtedly not alone in expressing how appalled she is at Trump “talking down our democracy”.
“You’re not up to the job,” said Clinton.
The polls, in which Trump has been driven downward to the point where defeat seems inevitable in the wake of the sexual assault allegations, seem to confirm that the US electorate may agree.
“We know what he thinks and who he is,” Clinton said. “It is up to us to demonstrate who we are and who our country is.”
After polls close on November 8, that will become clear. As, it seems, Trump – who has set so many precedents of an unpalatable kind in this election – will, in how he responds to that result, once again make clear who he is.