Donald Trump’s act has worn thin. Like an entertainer who hasn’t produced new material in years, he took the stage last night hoping that his old standbys would get him through one more performance, but when the laughs came, his audience wasn’t laughing with him, but at him.
The Republican presidential nominee fell back on familiar tactics and worn-out arguments at the third debate last night as he attacked Clinton on raising taxes, ISIS and her legitimacy as a candidate for president. For the most part, the audience sat in silence as the former reality television star repeated demonstrably false claims about unrestrained immigration, continued to deny the findings of US intelligence officials about Russian interference in the election, and repeatedly interrupted his opponent.
However, that changed when Trump was asked to address why multiple women have come forward to accuse him of sexual assault in the past two weeks. He retreated to his shopworn claim, “Nobody has more respect for women than I do. Nobody.”
The crowd, which was cautioned in advance not to react to the answers from the candidates, broke into unrestrained laughter, forcing moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News to silence them.
It was a telling moment because throughout most of his campaign Trump has been allowed to pile grandiose claims, one upon the other, into a towering pile of bullshit that’s now coming down around his ears in the most spectacular collapse of a major party presidential campaign in American history.
Trump has had to face allegations from more than a dozen women of inappropriate sexual advances, many of which detail behavior that tracks very closely with the sort of thing Trump himself boasted about doing in a 2005 videotape uncovered earlier this month.
The GOP nominee’s defense against the claims is that each and every one of them is false. Believing that would require believing that women who told colleagues and loved ones about Trump’s assaults ten, twenty, and thirty years ago were all part of some vast, decades-long conspiracy to take down a presidential candidacy that only began in 2015.
“Frankly, those stories have been largely debunked,” Trump insisted, despite the fact that, in fact, they have not.
Clinton also pushed him on the fact that he and his surrogates have attacked his accusers, claiming that they weren’t attractive enough for Trump to want to assault them in the first place.
“I did not say that,” Trump insisted three times, despite the fact that millions of people watched him do it on live television just last week.
Trump’s insistence that he didn’t say what he said and never did what he did wasn’t limited to his treatment of women.
He also executed an extraordinary about-face on his attitude toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, to whom he has previously claimed to have spoken, and of whom he said, last year that he “got to know him very well because we were both on '60 Minutes.' We were stablemates, and we did very well that night.”
When Clinton brought up the Russian leader in the context of cyber-attacks on Democratic institutions -- that the US intelligence community says originated in Russia -- he again contradicted himself.
“I don’t know Putin.... I never met Putin. This is not my best friend.” (However, he maintained his insistence, in the face of the combined assertions of the entire US intelligence community, that there is no evidence that Russia was involved in the attacks.)
But toward the end of the debate, the GOP nominee’s performance took a grim turn when he explicitly declined to promise that he would respect the results of the election on November 8.
“I want to ask you here on the stage tonight, do you make the same commitment that you'll absolutely accept the result of the election?” Wallace asked.
“I will look at it at the time,” Trump said. “I’m not looking at anything now; I'll look at it at the time.” He then went on to press his insistence that the election is being rigged against him, despite widespread condemnation of that stance by elected officials from both parties.
Wallace pressed him, citing the tradition of peaceful transitions of power in the US dating back hundreds of years, in which “the loser concedes to the winner and the country comes together in part for the good of the country.”
Putting Trump on the spot, he said, “Are you saying you're not prepared now to commit to that principle?
“What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time,” Trump said. “I'll keep you in suspense, okay?”
There was, not surprisingly, no laughter in the hall anymore.