Before the third and final debate, while Hillary Clinton prepared in relative quiet, Donald Trump prematurely and immaturely protested the fairness of the election, lashed out at faithless Republicans from Speaker Paul Ryan on down the government, and proposed that both candidates take drug tests before the debate. And so a miasma of fatigue and despondency hung over the last debate. Let’s. Get. Through. This.
Given her widening lead, Clinton needed only to continue to control her emotions, talk like a lawyer when pressed on her contradictions and weaknesses, and avoid a big mistake.
Trump had to show self control in order to change the subject away from his temperament.
As expected, the candidates clashed at every turn. Neither seemed capable of or inclined to provide an uplifting vision in a persuasive manner, not even at the close. Moderator Chris Wallace, the dyspeptic emissary of a Fox News organization on the defensive and in attack mode like the candidates, ran the show with a crisp pace, clear signposting as topics were switched, and inserting fact-checks at several points. The full transcript contains a surprisingly full range of contrasting issue positions, the only major exception being climate change.
Starting at 10:06 pm eastern time, Trump handed waverers in his party elite and the sliver of the undecided electorate a stunning rationale to reject him. It was a breakdown and breakaway exchange, and real-time reaction data confirms that many viewers recognized it instantly.
WALLACE: Mr. Trump, I want to ask you about one last question in this topic. You have been warning at rallies recently that this election is rigged and that Hillary Clinton is in the process of trying to steal it from you. Your running mate Governor Pence pledged on Sunday that he and you, his words, will absolutely accept the result of this election. Today your daughter Ivanka said the same thing. I want to ask you here on this stage tonight do, you make the same commitment that you will absolutely, sir, that you will absolutely accept the result of this election?
TRUMP: I will look at it at the time. I'm not looking at anything now. I will look at it at the time.
The audience gasped. Trump continued by castigating the “dishonest” and “corrupt” media. Wallace pressed:
WALLACE: But sir —
TRUMP: Excuse me, Chris, if you look at your voter rolls, you will see millions of people registered to vote. This isn't coming from me, from fury report [sic; this is an instant transcript] and other places. Millions of people that are registered to vote that shouldn't be registered to vote.
So let me just give you one other thing as I talk about the corrupt media. I talk about the millions of people. I tell you one other thing. She shouldn't be allowed to run. She's guilty of a very, very serious crime. She should not be allowed to run. And just in that respect I say it's rigged.
WALLACE: Sir, there is a tradition in this country, in fact one of the primes of this country is the peaceful transition of power. And that no matter how hard fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign, that the loser concedes to the winner. Not saying that you're necessarily going to be the loser or the winner. But that the loser concedes to the winner, and that the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you're not prepared now to commit to that principle?
TRUMP: What I'm saying is I'll tell you at the time. I'll keep you in suspense, okay?
CLINTON: Let me respond to that, because that's horrifying. Every time Donald thinks things are not going in his direction, he claims whatever it is is rigged against him.
And she laid out her examples, including the Emmy Awards, which he confirmed. As she said, his priorities would be funny if they were not so horrifying.
This passage is the crux: a presidential candidate in a televised debate called the American election system rigged, the American media corrupt, his opponent a criminal, millions of people as fraudulently registered, with scant and dubious to no evidence on each charge, as reasons enough in advance not to commit to accept the election results, along with the stated desire to keep his audience in suspense.
This four-minute passage sets up two and perhaps three very big speeches for the hours after the election returns are announced. Trump might back away from his charge, call for rebellion, or (my guess) something disjointed in-between. The deeply unsettled among those who voted for him will need to be addressed with a firm but calm invitation to reconciliation by the president-elect and, should there be actual resistance, by the outgoing president.
We will not only hear more from Donald Trump after the election, we will hear about him, as his conduct in his career and his campaign will be held up as examples of what needs to be reformed. In the instance at hand, the rigged election controversy that Trump has fomented exposes both a strength and a flaw in our Constitutional system. The strength is that the extensive decentralization of election administration serves to isolate any problems that may arise from overzealous partisans and hackers the world round. The flaw, as pointed out a decade ago by law professor Sanford Levinson in Our Democratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong, is that ten weeks is too long a wait for the transition to go into effect. The Twentieth Amendment was a step in the right direction but not big enough.
Consequently, if there is trouble, the continuity of the government of the United States of America will be perilously and needlessly dependent on the words and actions of a lame-duck president and Congress, and the rhetoric of the president-elect and the losing nominee.