PARIS—If I believed there ever was any chance of escaping the US election by running away to France for a week of business meetings and a little off time, all hope was dashed the moment we stepped into a cab at Charles de Gaulle Airport and the driver immediately started grilling us about Donald Trump.
This is how it has been the whole time here, with almost everyone expressing their fears of what a Trump White House would mean for the entire world. They’re shocked and disbelieving of the whole situation, their very real concerns the number one topic of conversation, followed in second place by the firm belief of many that we Americans soon will come to realize what a fine president Barack Obama has been and, running a distant third, the fallout from Britain’s Brexit vote and its impact on the future of the European Union.
Our election has so seized the imagination here that posters around the city advertise “La Nuit Americaine,” an evening of watching the voting results on Nov. 8 at the Carreau du Temple, the vast public space in the Third Arrondissement. And so it seemed imperative somehow that I had to be awake at 3 a.m. Paris time to watch the final presidential debate, sneaking in a nap and setting the alarm. I hadn’t done anything like that since mom let me watch the moon landing, another otherworldly and momentous, perilous event.
At first it seemed that perhaps Donald Trump thought it was 3 a.m., too, although it was only early evening in Las Vegas. By his standards, he was restrained to the point of somnolence, making a few points that even indicated some thought process going on. But from the beginning of his answer to the very first question about the Supreme Court—that “Justice Ginsburg made some very, very inappropriate statements toward me”—it was clear that good old, vituperative, self-involved Trump was lurking just below the surface.
As has been the pattern with all three encounters, in the first half-hour, talk was fairly measured, and then Clinton could be seen getting under Trump’s ocherous skin. Discussions of immigration, gun and abortion rights and Syria had their moments, especially when each candidate managed to move away from the same old familiar talking points and boilerplate, which was not very often. But soon, of course, Trump had to refer to some undocumented immigrants—alleged drug dealers—as “bad hombres,” as if he were Judge Roy Bean, Law West of the Pecos, ready to string up them non-American hombres without the benefit of a jury.
And so the evening progressed, if that’s the word for it, with the most stunning and headline-grabbing moment when Donald Trump refused to say if he would accept the final results on Nov. 8 and, in timeworn American fashion, calmly accept a win or loss. “I will look at it at the time,” he said. “I’m not looking at anything now, I will look at it at the time.” Pressed by Chris Wallace of Fox News, the debate moderator, Trump reiterated, “I will tell you at the time. I will keep you in suspense, okay?”
Not okay. This election isn’t the season finale of The Amazing Race. Not only did what he said directly run contrary to prior comments by vice presidential candidate Mike Pence and even Trump himself, with those words Wednesday night, he trampled on principles of democracy and human decency that help the republic keep its difficult balancing act together.
To constantly charge, as he has, that the election will be rigged—with no real evidence to back up his allegations—is a danger to our democracy and the words of a thug rather than a potential president. As The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik wrote back in May, “[U]nder any label Trump is a declared enemy of the liberal constitutional order of the United States—the order that has made it, in fact, the great and plural country that it already is. He announces his enmity to America by word and action every day . . . It is self-evident in the threats he makes daily to destroy his political enemies, made only worse by the frivolity and transience of the tone of those threats.”
In post-debate spin, Trump team members tried to liken their man’s stance to Al Gore in 2000, when the Democratic presidential candidate questioned the Florida vote. But there is little if any valid comparison. Gore challenged the count after it was announced, went through the legal process all the way up to the Supreme Court and when the court found for Bush—even though strong evidence remained of fraud and inaccuracies—Gore gracefully conceded the race. A divisive, weeks-long crisis ended with a call to unify as a nation and to let George W. Bush lead.
Grace is not a word that springs to mind when contemplating Donald Trump, as was proven yet again toward the end of the debate when he referred to Hillary Clinton as “such a nasty woman.” All of his misogyny, all of his indifference to women’s rights, and the dismissiveness that treats women as playthings or doormats was on full display in those four words. Sad.
In a little less than three weeks, after all these torturous months of campaigning, we finally should know who our next president will be, provided Trump accepts the outcome either way and doesn’t go off on yet another adolescent hissy fit. As for Hillary Clinton, she performed competently in Wednesday night’s debate simply by remaining unruffled by Trump’s inchoate attacks, stating her positions, artfully dodging landmines on emails and Syria, baiting Trump and hauling him in like the orange roughy he is.
Here in Paris, they tell the famous story of the Abbé Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, a pamphleteer of the French Revolution, who even during the worst and bloodiest parts of the Terror still dreamed of a representative democracy. Asked what he accomplished during the revolution, he replied, simply, “J’ai vécu”—“I survived.”
Hillary Clinton survived the last of these dumbed-down debates and from here in Paris, Donald Trump increasingly looks—pardonnez-moi—like French toast.
Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship.