Who’s In Charge Here: Trump’s dangerous game

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — During last night’s third and final Presidential debate, we had a peek into a parallel world. In this reality, the candidates had a substantive debate about policy, explaining where and how they differed on Supreme Court justices, economic plans, and foreign policy. This visit to an alternate world didn’t last long – no debate with Donald Trump on the stage could – and eventually ended up in the usual attacks and, especially from Trump, insults. Still, it was nice while it lasted.

One moment mattered more than any other, and I’ll get to that. But first, it was clear by the end that both candidates produced the best performances of the three debates. Trump in particular did well, especially at the beginning. We have to be careful not to rate Trump by the extremely low expectations set by his previous behavior, but you had to be impressed by his disciplined answers, lack of interruptions, and measured tone for the first third of the debate.

In the early going, Trump not only held back from attacking and talking over his opponent, at least in comparison to the previous debates. He also presented the talking points of an actual Republican candidate. He promised to nominate pro-life judges, cut taxes, and stay hawkish on foreign policy, probably hoping to prevent Republican voters from abandoning him over his recent comments on women.

Still, Trump’s attempts to follow debate decorum probably did not convince any undecided voters (if there are any left at this point), and ironically helped Clinton. Without Trump’s interruptions, she was able to make clear and extended arguments for her policies and bring up his shortcomings. Maybe Trump looked more “Presidential” than he has in previous debates, but he couldn’t hold a candle to the more prepared and poised Clinton. (Viewers apparently agreed.)

Of course, the big moment from last night was Trump’s refusal to say he would accept the results of the election if he lost. Trump’s camp later argued that the candidate was talking about a 2000 Bush-Gore-type situation, where the election was contested and the results were in doubt. But few expect that kind of outcome this year, as Clinton opens up a big lead in the polls. (As Republican Matthew Dowd noted on ABC News last night, Gore had a better case for a “rigged” election than Trump ever will – and Gore’s concession speech is today considered by some to be the finest moment of his long political career.)

It might be easier to buy this defense if Trump’s refusal wasn’t part of a constant drumbeat from him and his campaign that the election will be “rigged” for his opponent. At the same time, alt-right groups like the Public Interest Legal Foundation and James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas are spreading hysterical tales of illegal voting and voter fraud. (The PILF report way overstates the problem of immigrant voting, and O’Keefe uses deceptive editing to fake his reports.)

Trump’s gambit here might be to turn out his base: “Republicans better vote so Hillary doesn’t steal the election!” Others argue that a narcissist like Trump needs to find an excuse for losing the election, and he’s settled on a “rigged” game to continue with “I’m a winner” mythology.

But a more dangerous motivation, or at least by-product, of his ploy involves undermining the legitimacy of the election and the Presidential administration that results from it. In this sense, Trump’s “stolen election” story is just an extension of the Obama birther nonsense that launched his career in the first place, and remains a shameful page in the right-wing playbook in their battle with Democrats.

I am far from the first person to say this, but Trump is playing with fire here. Sure, we’ve had some questionable elections in the past (although myth outpaces fact in most cases), and our electoral system overall is kind of a shambles. (Read this piece by local politico, and former election official, Brian Schoeneman for some perspective on the problems local registrars face.) But that same electoral system still manages to let millions exercise their democratic rights, and generally the candidate most people want to win DOES win. Elections ARE actually rigged in other countries, often leading to violence, and we should remember the difference.

I don’t want to demonize here. Many Trump supporters are just frustrated conservatives who want to end what they see as a corrupt Washington system that largely ignores them. (It would be great if Trump’s claims about election fraud launched a good-government reform movement, but I’m not holding my breath.) But there’s a real bottom to Trump’s “basket of deplorables,” a group of alienated Americans who dwell among the worst conspiratorial fringe of the alt-right. Trump’s rhetoric feeds these people’s fire, and he should be careful not to dump too much fuel. If Trump loses (and loses #bigly), then hopefully he’ll do the right thing and concede gracefully – or as gracefully as he is able.

One final note: Trump argues that media is in on the fix, but Chris Wallace did a model job of moderating the last debate. He asked substantive questions from the beginning, and managed to bring up the candidates’ scandal issues through mostly respectable questioning; overall he reined in both candidates, and the audience, admirably. Wallace was the clear winner last night. (Along with Lester Holt’s therapist.)

Richard Meagher teaches politics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA. Follow him on Twitter at @rjmarr. Follow his blog here.

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