The Final Presidential Debate: We Weigh In

Welcome to Flavorwire’s third and final (thank heavens!) debate roundtable recap. Watch the New York Times video of the night’s highlights above, and then dig into our commentary below.

Sarah Seltzer: This morning, pundits decreed that the highlight — or the lowlight, as it were — of last night’s debate was Donald’s Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the free and fair election (an election that’s thankfully very close to our horizon!). As awful and terrifying as that was, I had a more viscerally angry reaction than I have in the previous two debates to some of the other things that Trump said: his gaslighting of Clinton by repeatedly calling her a liar, and, perhaps more egregiously, blaming her for things he himself had done. I had an “I am a woman and I am Hillary” kind of feeling that I rarely get from watching the pantsuited candidate. Perhaps it’s because my misandrist rage tends to be kindled most quickly by intellectual misogyny rather than common variety body-shaming misogyny — a man belittling my intellect or using a phrase like “nasty woman” when I strike back as an equal gets me into high dudgeon. Watching the night unfold, I felt infuriated that this was even happening, that our pioneering female candidate wasn’t given an opponent worthy of her.

Tom Hawking: Several times last night I had to get up and walk away from the screen because Trump’s bloviating was so egregious that I couldn’t stand watching it. The way Hillary has handled his ridiculous allegations over the course of three debates — never losing her cool, never snapping back because, as a woman, she’d get crucified for doing that, sigh — is quite remarkable. Also quite remarkable: Trump’s ongoing habit of accusing others of things of which he himself is guilty. Psychologists could write a textbook about the man.

Lara Zarum: There was a moment in the debate when Hillary mentioned that he accused the Emmys of unfairly rigging the contest against The Apprentice. He smirked and said, “Should have gotten it.” It got a laugh from the audience — the timing was, unfortunately, perfect — and Hillary had to once again play the part of the sober scold. “It’s funny,” she ceded, “but it’s also really troubling.”

I went to look up “scold” to make sure I was using the noun correctly, and this definition popped up on Google: “A woman who nags or grumbles constantly.” Hillary’s opponent has turned her into the very thing his supporters apparently see when they look at a woman who won’t shut up. Like many, many women, I know what it feels like to play the part of the scold — to point out, for instance, that a TV show many people enjoy is perhaps a little misogynistic. I’d rather not have to make those arguments, but I’ll keep making them as long as creators keep making work that, consciously or not, demeans women.

Yet Hillary delivered. She was a white knight. She chose her words carefully: After Trump described late-stage abortion as “ripping” babies from a woman’s womb, Hillary described his immigration plan as one that will “rip” families apart. While he talked about the world’s greatest wall, she calmly explained what that would look like, describing deportation forces that would “round up” people in schools, workplaces, and homes and send them away on “trains,” language that clearly evokes Nazi Germany.

Sarah Seltzer: And since gender politics were so clearly at play, she proved herself adept at using Trump’s masculinity to undermine him. By saying he “choked” and accusing him of “whining” among other things, she sent him off-script, into his sputtering, sniffing, interrupting, and talking-nonsense mode. Essentially she used his own tactics against him, to great effect. That takes serious skill and effort. The way she’s handled him in these three debates — using smarts, spontaneity, and research — gives me more confidence in how she’ll govern.

Jason Bailey: Yeah, you’re touching on one of the things that was legitimately pleasurable for me about last night’s debate: the way in which Secretary Clinton has learned, over these three otherwise loathsome evenings, how to debate (and, frankly, destroy) Donald Trump. In just those brief conversations — if you can even call them that — with this man, she’s learned how to combat him. She knows precisely how to bait him, how to throw in an aside or a slight that will completely unravel him, and she aimed them last night with razor-like precision. If there’s been a lower point of American political debate than “YOU’RE the puppet,” which is some straight-up I’m-rubber-you’re-glue shit, I haven’t seen it.

Tom Hawking: Also on that topic, Vox ran a piece this morning examining how effectively Clinton played Trump over the course of these three debates. The general consensus has been that he’s self-immolated, but as Vox pointed out, that’s not entirely true — he’s blown up because she’s laid snares for him to blunder into. Say what you like about Hillary, but that’s a damn good politician at work. She’s several orders of magnitude smarter than Trump, obviously, but she’s also going to be a match for the people that Trump keeps insisting have “outsmarted” her: Vladimir Putin, ISIS leadership, etc. Putin’s not stupid, and if he was so confident he could outsmart Hillary, he wouldn’t be running an unprecedented campaign to get a tangerine halfwit elected as America’s president.

Jason Bailey: What we saw Trump do over the course of all three debates was exactly what Tony Schwartz talked about in that extraordinary New Yorker profile: “He has no attention span… it’s impossible to keep him focused on any topic, other than his own self-aggrandizement, for more than a few minutes.” And so we’ve seen this repeating pattern, where over the first 20 to 30 minutes he does… not well, but fine. He at least manages to engage in something resembling a dress rehearsal of a political debate. But somewhere around the 1/3 mark, the attention tonic wears off, and that’s when he goes off the fucking rails. You can set your watch by it, and and again, it’s not really an A+ quality for the leader of the free world to have.

But I also think it’s important to note that even in the “restrained” portion of the evening, he was still spouting nuclear-level bullshit — a point that shouldn’t be lost in all of the inevitable (in fact, it’s already started) “she only won because she was up against Trump” nay-saying. When he is “on message,” he’s still slinging noxious nonsense about babies aborted “on the final day” of pregnancy that is right in line with what has become mainstream Republican dogma. The party standard-bearers can distance themselves from him all the want, but frankly, when he was being disciplined, it was barely less scary than when he was off the grid.

And I also like the fact that, there and in a couple of other moments, Hillary did let her rage show. She didn’t “get angry” — can you imagine the #takes if she had? — but you could hear the edge in her voice as she responded to Trump’s argument, the subtext of “Don’t you fucking mansplain abortion to me, chump.”

Sarah Seltzer: I was one of many women who recognized that Trump’s attempt to be gruesome on late-term abortion, the “ripping” that Lara mentioned above, sounded exactly like, um, a Ceasarean section birth. It was stunningly clueless and opened the door for Clinton to give one of the best, most vigorous defenses of abortion rights I’ve seen in a long time — and from a woman, no less. And more than in the other debates, she actually put forth some positive goals and plans: immigration reform, better healthcare, putting America back to work and so on. I began to imagine the kinds of things she’d really prioritize.

Lara Zarum: And yet, it would have been nice to have a serious opponent challenge some of her policy talk. It would have been nice to have just one question about climate change, a far greater threat to this country than a few “bad hombres.” Instead, we got a preview of the kind of fear-mongering and name-calling we can expect to hear daily from Trump when Hillary becomes president.

Maybe all was lost when the United States elected a former movie star as its president decades ago. But no one at this point can deny that politics in this country is, for many people, just another form of entertainment, as disconnected from their everyday lives as the weekly melodrama on Empire. This show won’t be over on November 9; be prepared for the Trump campaign reboot nobody asked for.

Tom Hawking: Brace yourselves for launch of Trump News Network. God help us all.