The third presidential debate of the 2016 US election is over. The nasty woman won it.
Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a liar several times and a nasty woman (a more polite form of a bitch) once. He was able to turn one of the institutions of the democratic process into reality television, a format for entertaining but not informing the audience, and in his case a format very much dependent on him being outrageously insulting.
Then he stepped further away from the idea of democracy, and that made me angry. I have spent enough time watching what happens in countries with dictators to know what the real alternative to this weak and wounded and barely functioning democracy might be, and I don't take Trump's insinuations lightly.
Julia Azari and David Firestone on fivethirtyeight.com make my point about those insinuations:
When asked whether he would accept a Clinton victory in November, Trump’s ultimate response was, “I’ll keep you in suspense.” I don’t mean to editorialize here, but this is perhaps the most alarming thing I’ve heard a presidential candidate say on a debate stage. In some ways, this is almost as bad — or maybe worse — than Trump coming out and saying he wouldn’t accept a loss. There are two principles at stake beyond accepting the legitimacy of the election system. The first is being honest about one’s plans and stances. The American presidency is not the latest Tana French novel — leaders can’t keep the people in suspense. The second is that presidential candidates cannot cast themselves in the role of investigating elections. Trump can’t do this, Clinton can’t do this. The only answer is that evaluating the fairness of the election is up to the commissions that are appointed to do this, not to the candidates themselves. Regardless of your policy beliefs, this is not how democracy works.
The debate is going to move on to standard debate subjects now, but it’s impossible to forget that a truly extraordinary moment just occurred, one that will become the signal clip from this debate and possibly this campaign. A candidate representing one of the two major parties refused to accept the outcome of an American election. Think of the implications of that: Not only does it risk civil violence on the part of supporters who will be similarly encourage to resist an election, but it undermines the most fundamental democratic institution on which the country is based. Imagine the reaction of countries struggling to achieve democracy when a candidate questions whether an American ideal is legitimate. The political system will survive Trump, but the cynicism and doubt sown tonight will take a long time to heal.
Trump says, over and over, that everything is rigged and corrupt: Not only the election process itself, not only Hillary Clinton, not only the Democratic Party, but the whole leadership of the United States, the whole global order, and all of the media. Indeed, there is nothing that is NOT rigged, except, naturally, one Donald Trump, the bestest, the greatest and the most honestest and informed presidential candidate ever.
Hearing Trump say that about the election results felt like ice water down my spine. It made me think of Putin, of Erdogan, of Assad, of Saddam, of earlier dictators, both openly dictatorial and quasi-democratic, both fairly benign and truly evil, and it made me think of the impossibility, absent democracy, of getting rid of a nasty dictator, except through the shedding of blood. Whatever the weaknesses of democracy, and those are many, it is the only political system I know of where an unsatisfactory ruler can be deposed of without anyone having to die.
And when democracy functions poorly, the correct solution is to improve it, not to displace it with dictatorships.
And how about that "nasty woman" statement? You may have come across this pyramid about how to argue on Twitter:
The goal is to debate as high on that pyramid as you possibly can.
Few politicians climb all the way to the top of that pyramid in public debates, but I have never seen anyone stay as low as Trump does. The sad thing is that he dragged H. Clinton further down on those levels than was necessary, though she never quite sank to Trump's average level.
Much of political commentary consists of analyzing the game, of explaining why pragmatic politicians do what they do, of analyzing the wonderful plots to take power from those who think differently, through all sorts of unethical-but-legal devices, of discussing the battle for power as if it was a baseball game. And I get the fun in that, I do.
But I wouldn't write about the topics I cover if I didn't think they mattered greatly. Democracy matters. It's a messy system, it's nowhere near close to giving power to all those who are governed and ruled under the US system, but it's bucket loads better than the other real-world alternatives. That Donald Trump seems to disagree with that should leave the whole world gasping for breath.