It ended not with a bang but with a whimper. It was, admittedly, a seditious whimper, with Donald Trump promising to keep America in ‘suspense’ as to whether he will accept the result of November’s election. Trump, it seems, aims not to lose but to have the Democrats ‘steal’ the election it is increasingly evident he is not destined to win.
It’s not entirely clear at this point if The Donald believes the paranoid delusions he describes or whether it’s just a convenient way to prevent serious bruising to his seriously sensitive ego. If he believes that the election is rigged, then he is much more of a true Republican than many of us thought. These are the views usually expressed on the backwater fringes of the party where distrust of the federal government comes in every shade of pellet-speckled warning sign. It was, however, surprising to hear it at a presidential debate.
Trump’s unwillingness to accept defeat left a bitter aftertaste to an evening that had began rather well for the Republican nominee. He answered the first few questions with an uncharacteristic sobriety. For a few moments, he did look presidential. He was restrained and did not interject a single dolorous ‘wrong’ as Clinton spoke. He even addressed issues in a way that has been unique to both the election but also the nomination process that had preceded it. Even if his words wouldn’t hold up to the scrutiny of the fact checkers, he made it sound like they just might.
Yet this Trump didn’t last too long. Clearly The Donald 2.0 is still in its developmental stage, an early beta prototype that was never meant for public roads. His replies began to lose shape, gaining in passion what they lost in focus. Trump’s best qualities have always been his wit — Clinton is singularly incapable of a humorous reply — and his capacity to talk directly to his electorate in a language they understand. His anti-politician rhetoric is what makes him such an effective politician. However, too often, his replies skittishly jump between topics. It is stream of consciousness stuff that can be effective in the right context. During the Republican debates, it helped Trump niftly set rival against rival. He could punch in multiple directions at any one time. In the context of the Presidential debate, the technique never worked. At times last night, Trump looked tired, almost indifferent to the moment. He brought nothing new to the arena, no new formulations of policy, no new way of describing them. Clinton, on the other hand, clearly came prepared with rehearsed answers. She cogently argued her way around the facts, managing to largely deflect accusations about emails, The Clinton Foundation, and immigration raised by Trump or by the evening’s moderator, Chris Wallace.
Yet the focus was largely on Trump, who remains one of the strangest enigmas of modern American politics. What happened to the candidate who looked so disruptive when seeking the Republican nomination? Why has he run such a remarkably flat campaign? Before this whole election cycle began, Trump was broadly seen as a New York Democrat, with his record suggesting that was open to some forms of gun control and with liberal attitudes on nearly every subject from abortion to gender rights. He launched his campaign by making a strident appeal to the right of the Republican party, picking up the easy votes from the Tea Party lobby. It seemed, at the time, a shrewd calculation. Once he’d won that nomination, it seemed obvious what he would do next. Facing one of the least popular Democratic candidates in living memory, he had space to work and to convince centrists that he wasn’t as far to the right as others suggested. Yet the ‘pivot’ never came. Instead, he rowed further away from the mainstream.
Perhaps there has always been something in the rumours that Trump had been shocked to win the nomination and quickly came to realise that he didn’t want the job that’s often described as a four year prison sentence. Michael Moore — admittedly, not always the best source — has claimed that he knows for a ‘fact’ that this is Trump’s ‘strategy to get the hell out of a race he never intended to see through it its end’. There have been other rumours. Some have suggested that those offered the chance to become Trump’s running mate were asked if they’d be happy in the role of proxy President. Trump, it seems, didn’t intend to spend the next four years in a Washington Oval Office cell.
As outlandish as it sounds, it is perhaps the only cogent and rational explanation for what has been a very strange election campaign. Would Trump, the enthusiastic advocate of social media, do as Obama has done and hand his private phone to the Secret Service? Could he live in Washington D.C., surrounded by the politics of Washington D.C.? Could he set aside his business empire, devoting himself to increasing the national wealth at the expense of his own?
Last night’s performance suggested that he couldn’t, wouldn’t and, what’s more, that he won’t. Trump couldn’t get out of there quick enough, leaving one to wonder if the event wasn’t just the latest stage in what has become a long and increasingly whimpering goodbye.