It was right about then that things fell apart for the Republican nominee—when he waffled on whether he accepted the legitimacy of American democracy. It only got worse for him at the final presidential debate on Wednesday evening at the University of Nevada, during which he called his opponent a “nasty woman” and complained about the Emmys.
After three debates, it’s clear that Trump can’t fight his own blustery nature for 90 minutes of back-and-forth. In each debate, he used roughly 30 minutes to make his points before the wheels came off. On Wednesday night, his last opportunity to dramatically change his trajectory before Election Day, he choked like a dog—to borrow an insult he likes.
He handed the game to Hillary Clinton, who is up by 6.5 percentage points on average nationally, according to Real Clear Politics.
An unusually subdued Trump appeared for those precious, initial minutes of the debate, much like during the first debate in New York, clad in his uniform of dark suit and red tie. It seemed that the discussion, shepherded by Fox News’s Chris Wallace, might actually be substantive. The first question was about constitutional rights. The second, abortion.
There were glimpses of Trump as we know him, as when, during an exchange about immigration in which Clinton said she didn’t want to break up families with undocumented immigrants living in the country, he said, testing out a Spanish phrase, “We have some bad hombres, and we’re going to get them out.” It was, Clinton shot back, an idea that would “rip our country apart.”
Then the conversation got weird: Trump accused Clinton of supporting the idea that he had based his campaign on.
“Hillary Clinton wanted the wall,” he said, noting that Clinton did support a 700-mile border fence in 2006. “Hillary Clinton fought for the wall in 2006 or thereabouts. Now, she never gets anything done, so naturally the wall wasn’t built. But Hillary Clinton wanted the wall.”
But it was when Trump attacked the very core of American democracy—the peaceful transition of power through elections—that things got nuts. It was a total flip-flop from the first presidential debate, when he said he would “absolutely” accept the results of the election.
“That is horrifying,” Clinton said. “He’s denigrating and talking down our democracy. I, for one, am appalled that somebody who is the nominee of one of our two major parties would take that kind of position.”
In the developed world, major party nominees don’t undermine their democracies by challenging the legitimacy of their contests.
But Trump is not like any other nominee in history. For instance, as Clinton noted, he once said the Emmys were rigged.
“Should have gotten it!” he said in response, about the awards.
When it became clear that Trump would be the Republican nominee, there was a lot of chatter, among the press and the so-called political experts, about his need to “pivot,” to act more presidential. He hired experienced campaign staff. He got a running mate who acts like an adult. Any time Trump acted unlike himself—say, by reading from a teleprompter, or making it through an interview or speech without saying something so insane he nearly broke the internet, it appeared as if the Brand New Trump had arrived.
And then he’d go back to his old ways.
Now, even with the presidency on the line and just 19 days until Election Day, he couldn’t help himself. After a smooth start, vintage Trump emerged—not that he’s ever left for very long.
He plugged his “beautiful hotel” in Vegas (it’s not), lied repeatedly about whether he used his charity for personal gain, and argued with the moderator.
Over the course of the debate, he criticized America’s intelligence services and the FBI—all the while praising Vladimir Putin and himself. “Putin has outsmarted her and Obama at every single step of the way,” he said.
He was at turns childish and impulsive, interrupting Clinton repeatedly—“Excuse me. My turn,” he insisted—and responded to allegations that he was a “puppet” of the Russian regime with a familiar playground retort: “You’re the puppet!”
Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and the Democratic National Committee have both been hacked in recent months and their private communications released to the public—with embarrassing effects. The intelligence community has assessed that the Russian government was involved with the cyberintrusions, which Trump has questioned.
“She has no idea whether it is Russia, China, or anybody else,” Trump said.
“He would rather believe Vladimir Putin than the military and civilian intelligence professionals who are sworn to protect us,” Clinton shot back.
In the “spin room” after the event concluded, the designated area where the campaign sends its surrogates to tell the press why their candidate won, Trump’s mouthpieces were working overtime to make his unprecedented rhetoric about the legitimacy of American democracy sound normal.
Kellyanne Conway, his chipper-despite-any-reason-to-be campaign manager, deflected by talking about Al Gore. Rudy Giuliani, he of unreliable memory, said Trump’s answer to the question was “exactly the answer I would’ve given.” Eric Trump told The Daily Beast there’s nothing wrong with questioning the system if the system is “rigged.”
But none could top Sarah Palin.
“I am so glad that Donald Trump is sayin’ of course we’re gonna accept a legitimate election,” Palin told The Daily Beast as she headed for the exit.
“If we’re not gonna be able to trust that the election is fair and, um, that people’s most sacred right to vote is respected, then that will tear at the fabric of our nation. So I am so thankful that Trump understands that. He doesn’t, like, belittle the idea or dismiss the idea of anything perhaps being skewed. It’s unfortunate that Hillary is so naive as to think that absolutely nothing could go wrong in an election. She needs to wake up and smell the roses and understand what’s going on.”
Asked if she believed what Trump is doing is at all dangerous, Palin said, “It’s very dangerous what Hillary’s doing, yes!”