Just before noon on Wednesday, my excellent friend and co-worker Dahr Jamail sent me a kind note of encouragement. “Enjoy the last debate, Will!” he wrote. “Sleep with one eye open tonight, Jamail,” I replied. “I’m coming for you.” He meant well, I know, but I was in a mood. The third presidential debate of 2016 was hanging over me like some foul fog bank, and was still hours away.
As I waited for the starting bell to toll, a number of interesting things had already come to pass. For starters, the day opened with a “wall” of taco trucks that began surrounding Trump’s Las Vegas hotel. I can think of worse ways to greet the dawn. Malik Obama, the Kenyan half-brother of the president, had accepted an invitation from Donald Trump to attend the event. The question of “Why” lumbered ponderously through my mind. Was Trump using this man as some sort of racist dog-whistle to fire up his base? A number of other individuals were tapped by Trump to come and enjoy the show, including the last-minute addition of none other than Sarah Palin to the guest list.
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I can only guess Trump surmised such a random goulash of attendees would so unnerve Hillary Clinton that she would run screaming into the desert night. However, Clinton stood her ground and their presence proved pointless. As the 90-minute debate ground to its conclusion, Trump’s eclectic assortment of attendees barely garnered a mention from the stage.
The debate itself was a slow devolution into garbled nonsense. It started well enough; hell, it actually resembled a debate for the first 25 minutes or so, with policy discussions and everything. It was almost disorienting for a minute there until reality reasserted itself. Trump is Trump, forever and ever amen, so there were of course moments where he reached maximum Trumpossity in his answers.
When questioned about how his Supreme Court nominees would interpret the constitution, he said right off the bat, “Something happened recently where Justice Ginsburg made some very, very inappropriate statements toward me and toward a tremendous number of people, many, many millions of people that I represent. And she was forced to apologize. And apologize she did. But these were statements that should never, ever have been made.” He wrapped it up with, “I don’t think we should have justices appointed that decide what they want to hear. It’s all about the Constitution of — of — and so important, the Constitution the way it was meant to be.”
Translation: I don’t know what “strict constitutionalist” or “living document” means. Please let me go home to my building filled with Chinese steel so I can stare at my portraits of myself. If Trump ever actually mastered two facts and rubbed them together, he’d accidentally discover fire and blow himself up.
I made a bet with a friend on exactly how long it would take for Trump to flip out. I said half an hour. I was wrong; Trump’s cork popped at 9:35pm Eastern Time when Clinton blasted him with one of the best verbal haymakers you’ll ever see in a debate. Trump was stem-winding about Putin having no respect for her, and she laid him out like he’d been trash-talking her mom: “That’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States.”
Wham and splatter. The only reason Trump’s hair didn’t do that twirling Shemp-from-the-Stooges thing is because his people had dogged it down like a spare sail before he went onstage. “No puppet, no puppet!” he frothed. “You’re the puppet! No, you’re the puppet!” Snot-encrusted pre-school playrooms don’t see the kind of tantrum he pitched, and from there the devolution was on. For the remainder of the night, Trump’s responses on foreign policy, his sexual assaults, abortion, guns, economics and everything else sounded like they could have come from a Magic 8-Ball. “Answer unclear, ask again later.”
According to the sad metrics of the age, Hillary Clinton “won” the debate simply by dint of having command of more facts than her opponent, and by retaining her poise in the face of a man who sounded like a bassoon being played by a vacuum cleaner, all noise and sucking.
In the end, however, this third debate served only to demonstrate just how far to the right the political dialogue in this country has tacked. The “Grand Bargain,” austerity’s two favorite words, made a star turn regarding Social Security and Medicare, with nary a word spoken on defense spending. Nothing, however, made our rightward swing clearer than the candidates’ martial colloquy on Iraq, Iran, Syria and Aleppo. We’ll fight them on the ground and in the air, we’ll go in and go in and go in. Were he with us, George Orwell might say we have always been at war in the Middle East. One of these days, that’s actually going to be true.
As we’re on the topic, let’s take a moment to focus on Hillary Clinton’s greatest failure on Wednesday night. I don’t expect Donald Trump to have a grasp on foreign policy any more than I’d expect him to be able to explain superstring theory (no, Donald, it’s not about your shoelaces), but Clinton knows better, and should at least be able to articulate black-letter history. Trump blamed her for the rise of ISIS several times, claiming “Iran won,” and she essentially let that stand.
False across the board: Iran “won” the moment we invaded Iraq in 2003 on a raft of lies she voted for, tore down the Sunni government and scattered the Ba’athist Army into the wind. ISIS became a foregone conclusion the day George W. Bush was born … oh, and by the diddly bye, US forces left Iraq in large part because Bush cut a deal to do so in 2008, a deal Obama honored. You might remember the day they announced it; a guy threw his shoes at Bush during that press conference.
The region is in chaos? Twenty-five years of war and sanctions and more war has a way of doing that.
Yet you can’t say any of that out loud, it seems, and certainly not on television. Killing is business, you see, and business is good.
This was all before Trump hissed, “Such a nasty woman” at Clinton, and before he refused to unequivocally accept the outcome of the election when pressed on all his “rigged” talk. “I’ll keep you in suspense,” he said to audible gasps from the audience. “OK?”
No, Donald, not OK. The first comment will certainly get a lot of attention from the media, but the second was the ballgame, and undoubtedly made Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus all want to run up a tree and start a whole new society where nothing like Donald Trump has ever existed.
We all have our bad days, and some are demonstrably worse than others. So it goes for Mitch, Pauly and The Priebester. You bought him, boys. Trump is your animal, and on Wednesday night he took a dump in our yard on national television. Enjoy the next 19 days of everyone calling that a disqualifying remark. There is no joy in Mudville, because Mighty Casey is a clown.
I laid awake long into the wee hours of Wednesday night and Thursday morning trying to encompass the phenomenon that was this now-completed trio of presidential debates. I kept taking sips of water while resisting the urge to spit. I have dealt with nine national elections on a professional level, many more on a personal level, and nothing I have seen or even heard of compares to this sick and sorry display. To misquote the Bard, it was a debate full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Poor players, indeed. We are all in a great deal of trouble.
Keep that eye open, Jamail. Nineteen days to go.