A defiant Donald Trump used the high-profile setting of the final presidential debate here Wednesday night to amplify one of the most explosive charges of his candidacy: that if he loses the election, he might consider the results illegitimate because the process is rigged.Trump did hurt himself with that, but I think he would have alienated much of the debate audience -- especially women -- even if that question had never come up. Near the end of the debate, I spotted this on Twitter from a female journalist:
Questioned directly as to whether he would accept the outcome should Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton prevail on Nov. 8, Trump demurred. “I will keep you in suspense,” the Republican nominee said.
Men I follow on Twitter: Trump is disciplined tonight. He's been studying up. Clinton is treading water.— Emma Roller (@emmaroller) October 20, 2016
That struck a nerve for me because for much of last night I was one of the men who thought Trump was, alas, doing reasonably well. I never said that on Twitter, but near the end of the second debate I tweeted that the consensus would be that it was a draw. Probably because I'm not a woman, I completely missed the fact that so many women had a visceral reaction to the way Trump loomed over Clinton in that debate. In this one, he wasn't able to walk around, but he still tried to instill fear in Clinton. It doesn't matter that he had little success -- just the attempt to do that was off-putting.
I'm not saying that all men missed the point and all women got it. Here's a man (a New York Times colleague of Roller's) who got it:
Today's experiment: During conversations with people around the office, I'll just spontaneously interject "WRONG" and see how things go.— John Schwartz (@jswatz) October 20, 2016
On the other hand, there was Amy Chozick of the Times, who wrote this (with Michael Barbaro), seemingly as an application for Maureen Dowd's job whenever Dowd decides her column-writing days are over:
She mansplained him. “Let me translate that if I can,” Hillary Clinton said dryly after Donald J. Trump talked up his tax plan.No, that's not what happened. Trump was more subdued than expected, especially in the first twenty minutes or so of the debate, but then
She interrupted him. When Mr. Trump boasted of the gilded Las Vegas hotel that bears his name, Mrs. Clinton leaned into her microphone. “Made with Chinese steel,” she quipped with a smile.
She mocked him. After Mr. Trump said President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had “no respect” for her, Mrs. Clinton slyly posited why Mr. Putin seemingly preferred Mr. Trump: “He’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States,” she said.
In the third and final presidential debate, Mrs. Clinton outmaneuvered Mr. Trump with a surprising new approach: his.
Flipping the script, she turned herself into his relentless tormentor, condescending to him repeatedly and deploying some of his own trademark tactics against him.
The relatively subdued and largely defanged Republican nominee who showed up onstage at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was a different figure from the candidate America has watched for the past 16 months.
Mr. Trump was, for much of the night, oddly calm and composed. He minimized his name-calling. His interruptions were relatively rare for him.
And Clinton is not like Trump. Clinton doesn't menace. Clinton doesn't try to intimidate. An opponent who was minimally socialized could have had an exchange with her that would have been called "sharp" or "heated" or "barbed," but wouldn't have descended into a pre-adolescent battle for dominance. Trump, however, always keeps it at the grade-school level.
And I haven't even gotten to this:
... Clinton's dig at [Trump] while talking about the Social Security payroll tax apparently pushed him over the edge.For viewers who aren't political insiders, especially women, I think that had more impact than the talk about a rigged election. It's the Q.E.D. for everything Trump critics have said about his temperament, especially the deep, deep misiogyny.
Clinton said her payroll taxes would go up, and so would Trump's, unless he found a way to avoid it....
The GOP nominee then leaned into his microphone and interrupted, "such a nasty woman."
It was a moment that stunned even observers inured to Trump's often brutal rhetoric.
On the subject of Trump's threat not to accept the election results, we have to remember that he's not just talking about vote fraud. If he sincerely believes that the voting is manipulated in such a way as to deny him a victory that's rightfully his, that's a case he has the right to make, and he's entitled to try to prove it (even though there's no reason to believe he can). However, Trump's notion of a rigged election goes way beyond voter fraud:
Wallace: ... I want to ask you here on the stage tonight, do you make the same commitment that you'll absolutely accept the result of the election.He seems to be saying that the election is rigged because the press publishes stories he doesn't like.
Trump: I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking at anything now, I'll look at it at the time. What I've seen, what I’ve seen, is so bad. First of all, the media is so dishonest and so corrupt and the pile on is so amazing. "The New York Times" actually wrote an article about it, but they don't even care. It is so dishonest, and they have poisoned the minds of the voters.
Trump: Excuse me, Chris. If you look at your voter rolls, you will see millions of people that are registered to vote. Millions. This isn't coming from me. This is coming from Pew report 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. I talk about the corrupt media. I talk about the millions of people. I'll tell you one other thing. She shouldn't be allowed to run. It’s -- 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 because she should never --So it's a rigged election because people who have died or moved are still on the voter rolls where they used to vote -- never mind the fact that there's no evidence that "millions" of people try to take advantage of this. And it's a rigged election because Hillary Clinton was allowed to run for president.
Wallace: But, but --
Trump: Chris. She should never have been allowed to run for the presidency based on what she did with e-mails and so many other things.
So there is no outcome -- not even a fifty-state, 61%-39% Clinton landslide -- that could meet all of Trump's criteria for a fair election. No election that includes Clinton could be fair. No election in which the press criticizes Trump could be fair.
That will be frightening if the election is anything less than a blowout. But it looks as if it's going to be a blowout, so Trump will strain credulity if he declares the results fraudulent on the night of November 8. And he absolutely will. We know from three debates that he has no idea how he comes off to non-admirers. As long as he believes he's scaring people, he assumes he's doing the right thing.