Heading into Wednesday night’s debate, many of us expected the worst. After Debate Two, in which the media instantly declared that by not losing, Trump won—notwithstanding his lies, insults, stalking, intemperance, illogic, nonsense, aggression and threats, only to be compelled to reverse their course when the viewers in CNN’s poll decided otherwise, the only possible direction seemed to go further downward.
With Trump plummeting in the polls and his campaign all but doomed, we were bracing for Trump’s Greatest Hits: every mean, ugly, cockamamie, untrue, racist, misogynistic, nativist, xenophobic, anti-intellectual utterance he has ever made, remastered for a gullible media. We braced for the most dispiriting moment in modern American politics. We braced for the nadir.
Given those low expectations, the post-debate media consensus was that Trump had a good first half-hour. Chuck Todd on MSNBC: “The first 30 minutes, if you were a Republican, you were relieved.” Martha Raddatz on ABC: There was “about 29 minutes of substance.” Or, as Van Jones more critically put it on CNN: “There is a mythology already beginning to set in that he did well at the very beginning.”
And then, they said, it was over. Even those who have the most to gain from the final lap of the race between Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton being close enough to draw an audience were forced to recognize it.
To borrow a phrase that will go down in infamy, not to “keep you in suspense,” but it wasn’t when Trump reverted to his typical mean-spirited self. It wasn’t when he assumed his jut-jawed, brow-furrowed alpha male expression. Or when he interjected frequently. Or when, as Todd described it, he could be good for the first 10 seconds of an answer, and then “talks in circles.” Or when, in the words of Jones, he “lied about the lies that he lied about.” Or when, as several pundits remarked, he spoke only to his base rather than trying to extend it, managing, in ABC’s Cokie Roberts’ words, to “gin everybody up” without convincing anybody new. It wasn’t just that “he didn’t get the lift he needed,” as PBS’ Mark Shields opined.
For Trump, and perhaps for democracy, the nadir came in that one striking moment cited by every analyst everywhere, and when I say “everywhere,” I even mean the alternate universe of Fox Business News, where Neal Cavuto professed shock. It was that moment when Trump refused to say that he would accept the electoral decision should Clinton win. David Brooks had it exactly right: The headline of the night would be that refusal. The MSNBC chyron read: “Trump Refuses to Say If He Will Accept Election Results.” CNN’s chyron: “Trump Won’t Commit to Accepting Election Results.” The Associated Press headline: “Trump Refuses to Say He Will Accept Election Result.” AP’s lede accused him of “threatening to upend a basic pillar of American democracy.” Conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt rhapsodized over Trump’s performance, then added wanly, “Much was lost in that one exchange.” What Trump didn’t seem to understand is that some things are still sacred. Our electoral system is one of them.
There were a few other moments in which Trump shot himself in the foot even before he shot off his mouth. Discussing immigrants, he said, “There’s some bad hombres,” which set the Twitter world atwitter, especially among Latinos who were deeply insulted. Later, when Hillary Clinton ran through her plan to increase payroll taxes to shore up Social Security, and quipped that Trump might try to avoid it, he snapped, “Such a nasty woman.” That triggered another Twitter storm, this one under the hashtag, #thisnastywomanvotes. As CNN’s Jake Tapper sighed, “That’s not what he needed.” Another Trump sneer, this one in response to Clinton’s Syria proposal, “Lots of luck with that, Hillary,” also wound up as a hashtag. Basically, he was conceding the election.
By the time CNN’s instapoll results arrived, they were anti-climactic. The viewing sample found Clinton victorious, 52 percent to 39 percent. On CBS, most of GOP pollster Frank Luntz’s 26-person focus group concurred that Trump had made a gigantic error in refusing to accept the election results should he lose. “He doesn’t understand our process,” said one. Two undecided voters flipped to Clinton. “Hillary Clinton won,” declared Matthew Dowd on ABC. In The Washington Post, Chris Cillizza shared that judgment. CNN’s Michael Smerconish summed it up: “He just can’t help himself.”
As far as we voters were concerned, Trump once again managed to upstage the discussion of issues. No, Trump really doesn’t have positions. He has slogans. And Chuck Todd is right: When Trump has dispensed his slogan, he just meanders to fill his time. But this debate was as close as we are likely to get to hearing some policy comparison. It wasn’t edifying; just more serious than the previous two. As for being the nadir—well, there have been a lot of nadirs in this election. Let’s add this one to the pile. The difference is that the media actually didn’t collaborate to create it this time. Donald Trump did it all by his lonesome.
This post was first published on BillMoyers.com.
Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two LA Times Book Prizes, Time magazine’s non-fiction book of the year, USA Today’s biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.