20 October 2016

Trump’s attack on democracy dominates final debate


I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense.”

In the third and final presidential debate, Donald Trump refused to confirm that he will accept the result on November 8th. In doing so, he not only undermined American democracy, but may well have made a fatal mistake.

The Republican candidate’s rejection of the democratic process is completely unprecedented: no matter how embittered campaigns become, the loser accepts the result and gets behind the president.

Instead, Trump has spent the past week complaining about a “rigged” election. Last night, he doubled down: a strategy that will ensure that the press and the public talk of little else in the lead-up to election day.

The irony is that at the beginning of the Las Vegas showdown, Trump actually appeared vaguely presidential, going toe-to-toe with Clinton on key issues. To the credit of Fox News’ Chris Wallace, the moderator, it was one of the first times that the American public has watched substantive, insightful debate between the candidates.

Mud-slinging was at a minimum as Clinton and Trump argued along traditional Democrat vs Republican lines, about the Supreme Court, gun laws and abortion.

While Clinton’s calls for gun control – in response to the 33,000 lives lost to gun violence each year – sound like common sense to us across the Atlantic, defence of the second amendment has a long and noble tradition, and Trump did his conservative credentials on the issue no harm.

Then came immigration – on which Trump’s comments demonstrated his continuing appeal to a large segment of the American population concerned about the issue. He spoke of drug problems “poisoning the blood of our youth” and, in a characteristically offensive way, how “we have some bad hombres here, and we’re gonna get them out”.

Despite being littered with falsehoods – such as his false claim to have been endorsed by ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency – Trump’s xenophobic message came across strongly. Clinton, in response, failed to make a positive case for immigration that cut through, getting bogged down in the practical solutions her presidency would offer.

On the economy, it was another clash of a detailed plan against populist rhetoric, with the latter winning once more. Trump’s simple language of tax cuts – “start the engine rolling again”, “get our jobs back” – was more resonant than Clinton’s carefully thought out policies.

They were cleverly targeted too: his comment about passing “factories that were thriving 20 to 25 years ago” was a clear reference to the swing states badly hit by deindustrialisation. Of course, there were no actual remedies offered nor explanations of how his policies would be paid for.

Yet as the debate wore on, Trump’s fragile air of respectability vanished.

The first angry clash came over the WikiLeaks. When Clinton condemned Trump for his links to Russia and for encouraging “espionage against our own people”, the Republican candidate’s demeanour completely changed.

In an astonishing exchange, he heaped more praise on Putin for “outsmarting” America, while repeating that “I don’t know Putin”: enough times for it to sound increasingly unconvincing. The contrast between the candidates’ temperaments was becoming increasingly clear.

Following an interlude of calm when they discussed the economy, the debate moved to the various allegations of sexual assault against Donald Trump. Inevitably, things wouldn’t stay calm for much longer.

In a despicable response to Wallace’s question, Trump suggested that the women who have made claims “either want the fame, or the [Clinton] campaign did it”. Clinton jumped on these despicable comments, saying “Donald thinks belittling women makes him seem bigger”, and identifying with women who suffer such harassment.

When Trump said that “nobody has more respect for women than I do”, the audience laughed. If he was aiming to claw back ground among female voters, he was achieving the opposite.

The debate stayed on controversial ground as Wallace then asked about the Clinton Foundation. Trump described it as a “criminal enterprise”, pointing to donations from Saudi Arabia where they are “pushing gays off buildings”. Clinton attempted to move the discussion on to the good work it had achieved – including cheaper treatment for HIV sufferers, and $30 million to Haiti in aid – before once again raising the issue of Trump’s failure to pay income tax.

Then came the all-important moment, as Trump reduced the debate – and indeed America’s democratic process – into a pantomime. Telling the American people that they will have to wait and see whether he will abide by the constitution and respect their votes is unforgivable. Rightly, Clinton said she was “appalled” and “horrified”.

The only explanation for such a move by Trump is that all this talk of election rigging will help to mobilise his supporters to vote. But in itself that seems contradictory: encouraging people to vote by effectively saying that their vote might not matter.

As the debate continued, Trump seemed like he had been let off the leash. On foreign policy, all he could say about Mosul and Aleppo was that they were “sad” situations caused by Hillary Clinton, without any suggestion of how he would deal with them.

He praised Bashar al-Assad’s strength, before appallingly describing Syrian refugees as “the great Trojan horse” endangering American security. Clinton stuck the knife in, pointing out calmly that “we were going after Bin Laden, while you were doing Celebrity Apprentice”. In their final discussion on entitlements, Trump contemptibly muttered “You’re a nasty woman” as Clinton discussed her plan to tax the rich.

In the end, though, only one thing mattered: Trump’s indefensible attempts to undermine democracy.

There is clearly a strategy at work here: given the state of the polls, and the Democrats’ built-in demographic advantages, Trump’s winning the Oval Office would take an extraordinary mobilisation of his base supporters, alongside the votes of a “silent majority” the pollsters have overlooked.

But by stirring up their sense of grievance, Trump is systematically alienating independent voters in the centre – already turned off by a string of scandals and misjudgments. Trump may be inflicting serious damage on American democracy. But he appears to be doing so in a losing cause.

Jack Graham is a political commentator who specialises in American politics.