As the cable networks’ countdown clocks ticked below the 22-minute mark Wednesday evening, offering their grim premonition of how TV news might cover the end of the world, it finally appeared as if the familiar figures of those spot-lit sets and “battleground” dispatches had run out of things to say. The setting for the third and final presidential debate of this interminable campaign, The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, lent itself to cliché: “The political backdrop in Vegas veers between circus and prizefight,” as MSNBC’s Brian Williams said when he came on the air, still unable to compose a compelling lede after months of preparation.
Elsewhere, the approach to the closing matchup between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton ranged from the banal—CNN correspondents listing the names of the advisors who’d helped each candidate prepare—to the bizarre—Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly running clips from James O’Keefe’s latest misleadingly edited video, this one promising proof that the DNC used mentally ill plants to incite violence at Trump rallies. In a sense, the content of the debate, skillfully urged toward substance by moderator and Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, was already immaterial. By 9 p.m. Eastern on October 19, 2016, we had reached a reckoning more fundamental than any one issue, or even “the issues,” writ large: Would we decide to destroy our democracy, or would we step in to save it?
That the atmosphere in Vegas crackled with a certain dark energy was clear, though “circus” did not quite describe it. The chants from those amassed behind the panelists were louder now, angrier; the signs they held aloft, hoping for a sliver of square footage on viewers’ screens, demanded repentance, and not simply forgiveness of student debt or an end to illegal immigration. Since the bright College Gameday frolic that marked the first debate, the mood had soured, to the point that I was reminded of something I wrote in June, on the TV logic of Trump’s appeal:
There was, of a sudden, a shadow of Weimar afoot in the land, its wine-soaked extravagances and brown-shirted factions, its charismatic strongmen, its strange entertainments, its nihilism.
Rachel Maddow wondered aloud if she’s spotted Fabio in the audience. John King attempted, with an air of desperation, to explain the fast-changing electoral map. Bob Woodward, who’s been reporting on politics since the last time it seemed the center might not hold, responded to O’Reilly’s question about the O’Keefe “revelations” with a resigned sigh. The most telling image of the night, however, the one that captured the frayed and jangled nerves of a nation on the brink, was the placard that appeared behind CNN’s David Axelrod at 8:38 p.m., as whistles and screams nearly drowned out the network’s on-set conversation:
HELL IS REAL
It was, not to put too fine a point on it, as accurate an account of the election’s emotional undercurrent as I’ve encountered in the course of five months covering politics for Paste, though in light of what succeeded it, the last 18 days of the campaign will almost surely be worse.
Though the usual outliers—CNN’s Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany, MSNBC’s Hugh Hewitt, Trump’s campaign staffers and prominent surrogates—clung tight to their man’s increasingly short coattails, the candidate himself opened the door to the night’s swift, clear consensus: When a major party’s nominee for president calls the integrity of the electoral process into question, nothing else matters. Handed a political life preserver by Wallace’s crisp follow-up, Trump dove headlong into the deep blue sea. As the New York Times’s Pamela Paul noted on Twitter, the candidate’s response, “I’ll keep you in suspense,” “is how you leave viewers hanging in a TV series, not how you leave citizens in an election.”
Along with many other memorable, meme-able acts of self-sabotage—”bad hombres,” “nasty woman,” “no puppet”—Trump’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of the vote dominated the post-debate conversation, and it seems likely to be as damaging to his political aspirations as it is dangerous to the American experiment. Brit Hume, Dana Perino, Michael Smerconish, Patti Solis Doyle, Chris Matthews: Across the partisan spectrum, anchors and analysts blanched at Trump’s failure to endorse the most fundamental—and fundamentally sound—feature of our admittedly broken political system, and it became the night’s key takeaway. As Louisiana State University’s Joshua Darr pointed out on Twitter, several smaller newspapers that endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012 (The Naples Daily News, The Quad-City Times, The Columbus Dispatch, The Cincinnati Enquirer) led with the story, and website of The Wall Street Journal proclaimed, “Trump Won’t Commit to Accepting Vote If He Loses.”
In this there was, perhaps, a silver lining. The prospect of Trump’s supporters “watching” the polls (read, intimidating voters of color), or for that matter rioting if Clinton wins, is frightening indeed, but as to the electorate entire the three presidential debates have been clarifying. It has been all too easy, dating back to the earliest days of Trump’s rise, to assume that the American voter is a sucker, swayed by spectacle and buoyed by bluster, but the fact remains that the demonstrably superior candidate has won, by any authoritative measure, each of the three contests—by calmly displaying her knowledge, experience, and grace under pressure, by baiting her opponent into interruptions and fits of pique, and by patiently awaiting his self-destruction.
As the always sage Nate Silver noted, with his usual flair for data, Clinton’s lead in the polling averages has crept up with each presidential debate: from 1.5 points entering the first, to 5.6 entering the second, to 7.1 entering the third. Reading this information in the wee hours of Thursday morning, as the screaming of MSNBC’s panel overtook that of the drunken students behind them, I was reminded of something Chris Wallace said when the debate hall broke into cheers a second time. “Hold on folks,” he said, turning to face the rows of people in the audience. “This is going to end up getting out of control, for the candidates and the American people.”
At the moment he said it, I understood it as I understood that forlorn sign—a summation of the havoc that’s already been wrought by Trump’s wild, aggrieved, fascistic, extinction-level threat of a candidacy. But upon seeing Silver’s gloss on the polls, I recognized the subtext of Wallace’s words, which is that we’ve come up to the brink but haven’t crossed it just yet. It turns out there is, because of that most fundamental—and fundamentally sound—feature of our admittedly broken system, one final fail-safe, one last mechanism for regaining control.