By far, the most talked-about moment from Wednesday night's final debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was Trump's telling moderator Chris Wallace that "I'll keep you in suspense" about whether he'd concede on election night if it became clear that he lost. Accusations about elections being stolen are common among all-caps types on both sides of the aisle, of course, but a presidential candidate theorizing that a vote might be invalid weeks in advance of the actual contest is unprecedented. It's the kind of institution-bashing that for a lot of people makes Trump look dangerous—and not "Steven Seagal in a movie" dangerous, but "broken fridge falling out a window dangerous." (On Thursday, Trump told a crowd that he'd accept the results "if I win.")
But a single apocalyptic exchange shouldn't obscure the larger fact that this was a lousy debate. Though both candidates were relatively good at staying on-message, those messages were filled with the same kind of viciousness that has run through the entire campaign. Combine that with Clinton's dodges on questions critical of her and Trump's penchant for talking comment-section nonsense until someone stops him, and you have a 90-minute TV program as grim as anything on HBO but without the nudity, violence, or literary themes.
Let's have a look at some of the lowlights:
Trump, on what Wallace called "late-term, partial-birth abortions": "If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby. Now, you can say that that's OK and Hillary can say that that's OK. But it's not OK with me, because based on what she's saying, and based on where she's going, and where she's been, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month on the final day. And that's not acceptable."
Part of the problem here is the phrasing of the question—as VICE News points out, "partial-birth abortions" is a term conjured up by a pro-life group to describe late-term abortions, which are rare and almost always performed for an urgent health reason. But here Trump takes a standard right-wing positions—abortions are bad—and makes it incoherent. "Ripping the baby out of the womb" on the "final day" is... a C-section? A stillbirth? Unsurprisingly, a father of five who once bragged about not changing diapers seems a little fuzzy on the details of reproductive health.
Trump, on deportations: "President Obama has moved millions of people out. Nobody knows about it, nobody talks about it. But under Obama, millions of people have been moved out of this country. They've been deported. She doesn't want to say that, but that's what's happened, and that's what happened big league."
As expected, during the immigration portion of the debate, Trump accuses Clinton of being soft and pro-amnesty, and Clinton paints Trump as heartless. But Trump also says that Clinton did vote for a border wall in 2006—which she admits—and referenced Obama's reputation as the "deporter in chief." First of all, people have been talking about this for years. But secondly, why portray your opponent as secretly agreeing with you? Is the idea that Clinton is a flip-flopper? Doesn't that dovetail with Clinton's emphasize that she is actually pro–border security. I honestly have no idea why Trump brings this up.
Clinton, when asked about a leaked portion of a speech transcript in which she said she dreamed of "a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders": "Well, if you went on to read the rest of the sentence, I was talking about energy... But you are very clearly quoting from WikiLeaks. And what's really important about WikiLeaks is that the Russian government has engaged in espionage against Americans."
Actually, in context, it's far from clear she just meant energy, and her "dream" of open borders would make sense given her documented support of free trade. (Though we would know more about the context if Clinton released the full transcript of that speech.) And though all the available evidence points to the hack of her campaign chairman's emails as being the work of Russia, the question of what she actually thinks about trade and the question of Russian cyberattacks are totally separate. Just as you don't need to love Edward Snowden to discuss the NSA programs that his leaking revealed, you can think that Russian hacking is bad and talk about newsworthy items in those hacked emails. But obviously, Clinton would rather talk about Russia than those speeches. As Trump says moments later, "That was a great pivot off the fact that she wants open borders."
Trump, on Russia: "Now we can talk about Putin. I don't know Putin. He said nice things about me. If we got along well, that would be good. If Russia and the United States got along well and went after ISIS, that would be good."
Even though he acknowledges she dodged the question, Trump lets the subject change—then gives Clinton a soundbite about Russia and the US getting along that just affirms the idea that he's Vladimir Putin's preferred candidate. This leads to a testy, interruption-filled exchange where he says, "Putin has outsmarted her in Syria." Later he'd say that Syrian president Bashar al Assad is "tougher and much smarter than her and Obama"—not the sort of praise candidates usually heap on regimes widely accused of war crimes.
Clinton, during an exchange on the sexual assault allegations against Trump:"America is great, because America is good. And it really is up to all of us to make that true, now and in the future, and particularly for our children and our grandchildren."
Wallace: "Mr. Trump..."
Trump: "Nobody has more respect for women than I do. Nobody."
This portion of the debate, on the "fitness to be president," is basically just a series of questions aimed at Trump about why he's such an unbelievable asshole. This has come up at every debate, and every time he's just asserted that he respects women—which is at this point a joke. If Trump could get through one of these things looking like a president rather than a combination of Rodney Dangerfield and Judge Smails, maybe these questions would come up less often.
Clinton, after being asked about allegations that she gave special treatment to Clinton Foundation donors while she was secretary of state:"I am happy, in fact I'm thrilled to talk about the Clinton Foundation, because it is a world-renowned charity and I am so proud of the work that it does. You know, I could talk for the rest of the debate—I know I don't have the time to do that."
This is the start of an exchange too long to reproduce here, but basically Clinton responds to questions from both Trump and Wallace about her family foundation by completely ignoring them and emphasizing instead what great work it does. She doesn't address the idea that there was special access given to donors—not even to deny it—and when Trump asks why the foundation took money from Saudi Arabia, she glides right past it. (Her defense, presumably, would be that the Saudis gave that money before she was secretary of state, but she was a senator on the verge of running for president in 2008.) Clinton is obviously not happy talking about all this, and tries to get the conversation to the Trump Foundation, which has its own problems.
Trump, on the offensive to take the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS: "So we're now fighting for Mosul, that we had. All she had to do was stay there, and now we're going in to get it. But you know who the big winner in Mosul is going to be after we eventually get it? And the only reason they did it is because she's running for the office of president, and they want to look tough. They want to look good... Iran should write us a letter of thank you, just like the really stupid—the stupidest deal of all time, a deal that's going to give Iran absolutely nuclear weapons. Iran should write us yet another letter saying thank you very much, because Iran, as I said many years ago, Iran is taking over Iraq, something they've wanted to do forever, but we've made it so easy for them."
Trump on foreign policy is an enigma wrapped in a riddle inside a man who still doesn't know what he's talking about. Is he against the offensive of Mosul? How does he think the operation helps Iran? What, other than time-traveling backward to stop the Iraq War from happening, does he actually think the US should do? The difference on the issue between Clinton and Trump isn't between a hawk and a dove but between a hawk and a hawk that has undergone a lobotomy.
Clinton, talking about Social Security: "Well, Chris, I am on record as saying that we need to put more money into the Social Security Trust Fund. That's part of my commitment to raise taxes on the wealthy. My Social Security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald's, assuming he can't figure out how to get out of it. But what we want to do is to replenish the Social Security Trust Fund..."
Trump: "Such a nasty woman."
All three debates have been mud-slinging affairs, but the two candidates go low in vastly different ways. Clinton goes low by pretending she's not going low—remember, her best friend Michelle Obama said that "when they go low, we go high"—then launching attacks on Trump shipping jobs to Mexico, using Chinese steel, spinning conspiracy theories, and being a Russian puppet and too unstable to trust with nuclear weapons. But she never calls him names, unless you count "Donald."
Trump, though, skips the part where he pretends to give a shit about decorum. Maybe this is a conscious strategy on his part in order to not look like a typical politician, but here he manages to validate everything everyone says about him: He's easily baited, impulsive, a name-caller barely able to control his misogyny no matter how many times he reassures us he respects women. Oh, and in the process, he created a pro-Clinton meme. Not bad for four short words.
Transcript of the debate via the Washington Post.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.