by Neil H. Buchanan
For the third presidential debate, I once again sequestered myself from media reactions, fact checks, conversations with friends, and so on. As I write these words, I have not read or heard any evaluations of the debate, which allows me to offer my own reaction to the debate rather than being swayed by spin and groupthink.
I will shortly turn to the task of evaluating the debate overall, both from stylistic and substantive angles. But I simply cannot bury the lead:
Donald Trump announced at the debate that he will not accept the results of the presidential election, unless he wins.
If that is not a plan to foment insurrection, I do not know what is. This is not the kind of thing that one says lightly, but it is chillingly accurate.
During the debate, the moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump if he would accept the results of the election, win or lose. Trump said, "I will look at it at the time," and then "We'll find out on November 8." Wallace had even reminded Trump that his running mate Mike Pence had promised to accept the results, but it did not matter to Trump.
To Wallace's eternal credit, he then all but begged Trump not to go down that road, reminding him of the importance of the peaceful transition of power in our democracy.
Unfazed, Trump said: "What I'm saying is I'll tell you at the time. I'll keep you in suspense, okay?" He talked as if this was a teaser for the final episode of a television show, not the possibility of the breakdown of American law and order.
Hillary Clinton's response was very good, as always, beginning by saying that Trump's non-answer was "horrifying." She pointed out that Trump's pattern is to claim that everything is rigged when he loses, even down to losing an Emmy award for his reality-TV show.
Showing just how little he cares about any of this, Trump smirked and said, "Should have gotten it." Clinton smartly worked his lack of seriousness into her response: "This is how Donald thinks. And it's funny, but it's also really troubling." To say the least.
The reason that I am describing Trump's response as a path to insurrection, however, is that he actually described his three reasons for believing that the election is rigged. Not only are those reasons insane, but nothing that could happen between now and November 8 could possibly satisfy him. He will lose, and he will then tell his people not to accept the results.
First, Trump claimed that the media has "poisoned the minds of the voters." This is standard press-baiting from any Republican, but Trump used it to say that the election itself is rigged and thus that the results will be illegitimate.
That is an incredible claim, because Trump has now decided that he alone is capable of saying whether people's votes should be counted at all. "You voted for Clinton? You poor thing, you were brainwashed by The New York Times and Washington Post. Your votes are part of the rigging process, so they do not count." Losing will be proof of his conspiracy theory.
Second, Trump claimed that millions of people who should not be registered to vote are registered. Of course, Trump claimed that many "places" (by which he seems to have meant media sources) have verified this non-fact, which means that Trump is once again channeling a whole set of pet conspiracy theories on the right.
Trump has spent the last few weeks whipping his supporters into a
frenzy with racist claims that "certain neighborhoods" are going to
engage in massive voter fraud. As always, his claims were not based on
facts, but he and his surrogates have nonetheless convinced many of his
supporters that African-Americans and Hispanics will steal the election.
Again, what could happen between now and Election Day that could convince Trump that voter fraud turned out not to be a problem? He and other Republicans live in an alternative reality in which minority voters steal elections, even though all independent studies confirm that voter fraud could not possibly swing an election.
Trump will not care. Surely, he and his supporters will cite "many, many reports" on Election Day that supposedly prove voter fraud. And nothing will convince them otherwise.
Third, Trump decided to adapt his attack line about Clinton's email controversy by saying that she should be in jail for violating the law. That means, according to Trump, that the election is rigged because she should not even be allowed to run against him.
Trump dismissed the FBI's decision not to indict Clinton -- which, we should all recall, saw the FBI director being very critical of Clinton yet still concluding that "no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case" -- because of yet another conspiracy theory, this one involving Bill Clinton and the Attorney General.
In short, Trump thinks that it is acceptable to hold out on answering one of the most fundamental questions of any presidential candidate: Will you go peacefully if you lose? And although he says, "We'll see," he has already told us what his answer will be.
When the votes have been counted, Trump will still be convinced that the media "poisoned" people's minds. Stories of voter fraud will fill the right-wing media. And Hillary Clinton will still not be in jail.
Trump has now announced to the world that his losing will prove that the election is rigged against him. He will thus arrogate to himself the right to say that he did not lose fair and square. If you are not scared, you should be.
It is thus more than a bit of an anti-climax to explain just how badly Trump lost the rest of the debate. Even so, it is important to remind ourselves just how incapable of rational thought this man is, and how temperamentally unfit he is for any public office.
Actually, there was one good moment for Trump, from the standpoint of effective debating. Wallace brought up the hacked emails from the Clinton campaign, asking her about the portion of a speech in which she said that she "dreamed" of a world with open borders and open trade. This question did not take Clinton by surprise, of course.
After answering the question directly, she used the opportunity to remind Wallace and everyone else that the question was based on foreign espionage, with Russian hackers having violated her privacy in order to tilt the U.S. election to Trump. Among other things, this allowed Clinton to remind people that the Russians have not leaked anything against Trump.
When it was Trump's turn to speak, he pointed out that the discussion of Russian hackers was not at all responsive to Wallace's original question. As I noted above, that was a good debating move. In three debates, Trump had one good moment. Kudos. Of course, Clinton actually had answered the question, and she had raised a much more important point, but why be picky?
For the rest of the debate, Trump was his usual rambling, incoherent self. He went through his greatest hits of just-so stories and lies, continuing to blame Clinton for not having solved every problem in the world during her years as First Lady, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State. It is still, in Trump's view, all her fault.
I will comment on one or two policy issues in a moment, but it was especially notable how badly Trump performed stylistically. Although he only snorted once, he was simply terrible when it came to his speaking style. Sentences would trail off. Sometimes it was impossible to know who or what he was talking about, because he was being so vague.
More to the point, he was a snide, condescending jerk. He made faces when Clinton was speaking, he revived his honking "Wrong!" heckle, and he insulted her to her face. Weirdly, he twice asked her direct questions but then cut her off dismissively when she tried to answer.
The substantive aspects of the debate were even worse for Trump.
Because I am an economist, I was especially fascinated -- and not in a good way -- by the discussion of budgetary issues. This is not to say that any of the other issues about which Trump made up his own facts -- terrorism, immigration, guns, and so on -- are less important. I just happen to know more about the economic issues.
The discussion went badly in large part because Chris Wallace is so ignorant about economics. He had a tough time all night in his moderating role, and he did do a good job in some ways, but he asked ridiculous questions about economics. Trump's answers, of course, were worse.
Early in the debate, Wallace asked this jaw-dropper: "Secretary Clinton, I want to pursue your plan. Because in
many ways it is similar to the Obama stimulus plan in 2009, which has
led to the slowest GDP growth since 1949." Even Trump could not pretend that that was a fair and balanced question.
So, Wallace believes that the stimulus plan "led to" slow GDP growth? The most generous way to view this, I suppose, is to say that the stimulus happened first, and then after a few years of decent growth the economy has slowed down disappointingly for the last few quarters. Of course, current forecasts indicate that this is a temporary lull, but we can leave that aside, too.
For Wallace to say that the stimulus package "led to" this recent slow growth suggests causation, which is utterly ridiculous. This is a standard Republican talking point, which is that the stimulus "failed." The fact is that the economy would have grown even more slowly if there had been no stimulus package, and the economy would have grown faster if the stimulus package had been larger (and included fewer giveaways to the rich).
Moreover, as Clinton pointed out, the U.S. and the world in 2008 and 2009 were on the precipice of something truly terrible. Economists were seriously asking whether a full-on global depression was imminent. I have always thought that the stimulus was too small, and that President Obama was wrong to capitulate to Republicans and a few conservative Democrats who insisted on shrinking it, but the idea that the stimulus did something enormously important at the time that it was passed is beyond question.
Trump, of course, thinks that he has the magical touch to make the economy grow faster. He invoked India and China to say that they have high growth rates, even though those growth rates are a matter of those countries catching up with the wealthy countries. They cannot be replicated here.
It has become all too easy to forget just how empty Trump's economic argument is. He says that he will bring back America's former industrial glory, by stopping jobs from leaving the country. How? By making it happen.
Like almost everything else he said at the debate, Trump was simply preaching to his choir. Trade bad, immigrants bad, politicians fail, tax cuts for the rich, trust me. It is a fantasy world, but some people like hearing him say these things.
Wallace's other economic questions focused on the national debt. He twice invoked a "deficit scold" lobbying group as a source of claims about federal borrowing, and he then invoked the all-purpose "entitlements" trope to attack Medicare and Social Security.
To be fair, this question was likely to be more uncomfortable for Trump than for Clinton, because Trump's trickle-down tax plan is so extreme, while Clinton's plan has real numbers to back it up. Even so, it was fascinating to see a moderator adopt as fact a model of economics that has never been less relevant than it is today, with global interest rates at or near zero.
Trump managed to give the most ridiculous answer possible. He simply said that debt will not be a problem, because he will make the economy grow really, really fast. He claimed that he can move the annual GDP growth rate "up to 4 percent. I think you can go higher, to 5 or 6 percent. We have a
tremendous machine. We will have created a tremendous economic machine."
I guess it will be tremendous. Why not 7 or 8 percent, as long as we are just pulling numbers out of the air?
From a debating standpoint, perhaps the most interesting moment of the night was when Wallace asked the candidates to deliver what amounted to closing statements. Clinton delivered a crisp, positive vision of the United States and the future, promising to stand up for the powerless against the powerful. It touched on themes that she had brought up earlier in the debate, and she closed strongly.
Trump, in stark contrast, rambled on about his usual run of fact-free claims, from our supposedly "depleted military" to "Our policemen and women are disrespected" to "Our inner cities are a disaster." On the latter, he immediately equated inner cities with minorities, saying absurdly that "They have no education, they have no jobs. I will do more for African
Americans and Latinos than she can ever do in ten lifetimes."
In short, Trump ended his final debate as he began his campaign, and as he honed his message at the Republican National Convention. In Trump's mind, everything is terrible, and the only way to make things better is to let him do whatever he wants.
Finally, I cannot help but comment on Hillary Clinton's poised performance in the debate. She was a picture of composure, even as Trump called her a liar and claimed absurdly that her campaign had tried to pay people to disrupt Trump's rallies.
Most importantly, Clinton managed to force herself to stand calmly next to a confessed serial sexual assailant, speaking firmly while her opponent heckled and demeaned her.
A year ago, I was not sure how I felt about Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate. At this point, her grace and strength have won me over. No one else could withstand what she has withstood. I want her working for me.