The final US presidential debate confirmed what we already knew about both candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. Donald Trump has no experience of political office, speaks in vague and general terms on major policy questions, is vulnerable on the question of women, and refuses in advance to accept defeat – if it comes his way on election day – because he claims the system is “rigged”.
This last position confirms that he believes the electoral systems of the American states, many of them in Republicans’ hands, are illegitimate despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This has never before occurred in the history American presidential elections and indicates a chasm deeper than the San Andreas fault between the two candidates, between the Republican candidate and his own party, his own campaign team, major supporters like Governor Chris Christie and his vice presidential running mate, Governor Mike Pence
But his core voters – drawn from a wide social base extending deep into America’s affluent middle classes – will be encouraged to stick with their candidate until the very end.
He also argued that as a ‘criminal’, Clinton should not be allowed to run for president. In the first debate, he said that he would have Hillary investigated and sent to jail for her ‘crimes’. He is setting the stage for a declaration of a rigged, stolen election that illegally deprives him of victory on 8 November. Should he stick with this line after what looks like inevitable defeat on 8 November, he may well continue a campaign to undermine the legitimacy of a Clinton presidency much as he tried to do with false claims against President Obama that he was not born in the United States, a claim believed by large swathes of the Republican electorate even today.
This unprecedented stance would place the US alongside authoritarian states and dictatorships that routinely jail opponents – a practice in many US allied nations that threatens to come home. But it will delight his core support, whose slogan is “Lock Her Up”.
Donald Trump also accused Hillary Clinton’s campaign of causing violence at some of his election rallies and encouraging women to come forward with false claims that the Republican had sexually molested them. “She started the riot at my Chicago rally,” he stated. He flatly denied he’d ever molested or groped any women and declared that he respects women more than any other person alive. Trump’s world is beyond evidence, a self-contained reality.
Trump was stronger on his remarks about Iraq, on Libya and Syria where he scored well for pointing out that President Assad, Russia and Iran were actually fighting ISIS while the US backs ‘rebels’ whose loyalties are suspect.
He also went on the offensive over the Clinton emails matter and made legitimate points about the derailing of the FBI’s investigation. There is a case to answer there which will be used by opponents like Trump to challenge her leadership and block her presidential initiatives, especially if the GOP retains a hold on the House of Representatives.
Trump called Hillary Clinton “a liar” on at least four occasions, and interrupted his opponent on numerous more occasions.
On another landmark issue in post-war American politics – Roe vs Wade which made abortion legal – Trump stated he would appoint Supreme Court justices to overturn the decision of 1973. Hillary Clinton’s stout defence of the pro-choice position was both clear and hard-hitting – and will further widen the rift between women voters and the Republican candidate.
Overall, his performance was acceptable but he did secure a victory. Clinton has now won every debate according to opinion polls that have a secure methodology, i.e., anything approaching a representative sample of either debate-watchers or likely voters. But the core support of each candidate will not have been affected by the third and final contest between the candidates for the White House.
Clinton’s performance was, once again, measured, detailed on policy, generally on point in regard to questions asked, and even witty on occasion – as when she threw in a remark about the Chinese steel used by Trump to build his Las Vegas hotel while he was plugging his various towers.
On the economy, it was noteworthy that Trump agreed with Chris Wallace, the interviewer, when he said that Trump stood for lower taxes and less government regulation, but his own response was to argue that NATO countries should “pay up”, avoiding economists who criticise his tax reduction plans as likely to cause a massive increase in the national debt and which Clinton derided as “trickle down economics on steroids”. Low taxes for the rich and less corporate regulation contradicts the political attitudes of large parts of his working class core support. It remains to be seen if that makes any difference to them on election day.
Low taxes for the rich and less corporate regulation contradicts the political attitudes of large parts of the GOP candidates working class core support. It will remain to be seen if that makes any difference to them on election day.
In their closing statements, the contrast was stark and confirms where each candidate stands rhetorically: while Clinton emphasised jobs, diversity, fairness, taxing corporations, Trump spoke about a stronger military, more empowered police forces, and twice in a minute repeated his ambition to make America great again.
There remain in the region of 19% of American voters still undecided on their choice of president. Polls over the next week will show if anything in last night’s debate made them change their minds. Hillary Clinton has a strong lead at present nationally and in almost all key states but that large figure for undecided voters means this election contest is going down to the wire.
Americans will finally decide on what kind of country and leader they want. Most are likely to vote negatively – against the candidate they dislike most rather than for one they truly admire.
American democracy has produced two of the most disliked candidates for president in a century or more and however things go on November 8, there will remain massive political discontent and disillusionment. Given the poisonous atmosphere, the spectre of political violence hangs over the United States. And if Clinton wins, as almost all polls predict, there is likely to be a concerted right-wing effort to declare her election illegitimate and to block her legislative programme.
This is the end point of post-truth politics where a politician can say whatever they like regardless of the facts and maintain that position despite evidence, and be believed by a significant proportion of the electorate, regardless of level of income or education.
The paranoid style in American politics, documented long ago by historian Richard Hofstadter, is alive and well and hard-wired in divisive partisan politics.
In the 1990s, the Clintons spoke of a vast right wing conspiracy against their leadership. They may have been half-right then, but the power of the Right has exploded in the twenty-first century. President Clinton is going to need a mobilised Democratic party, energised by the Bernie Sanders Millennials, to stand any chance of sustaining her credibility as America’s first woman chief executive and commander-in-chief.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City University of London and a columnist at The Wire. Follow him on twitter @USEmpire