LAS VEGAS ― Donald Trump is a loser, but so are we.
In a bitter, joyless 90-minute presidential debate, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton went at each other with a “Game of Thrones” level of viciousness that could only have been fun to watch in the Kremlin. It was as though, knowing that he could not win the presidency, Trump was determined to make the job not worth having.
Trump called Clinton a liar, a “nasty woman” and someone who should have “never been allowed to run” because she is a crook.
She called him a liar, a sexual predator, a “puppet” of Russian President Vladimir Putin and “the most dangerous person to run for president in modern times.”
And in the stunner of the night, an embittered but unbowed Trump declined to say whether he would accept the results on election night were he to lose, as is now likely, if not inevitable.
“I’ll look at it at the time,” he said airily, as though discussing a future shipment of dry wall. “I’ll keep you in suspense.”
“That’s horrifying,” Clinton replied. “When you are whining, you are not up to the job.”
Trump’s unprecedented threat to sow chaos rather than concede was chilling ― and could presage a continuing populist crusade to challenge the very legitimacy of government for the foreseeable future.
It was all too fitting that this sordid, unedifying and mostly uninformative series of debates ended here in Las Vegas, a city built on glamorizing the seamy, low-rent side of American life.
As Clinton has herself privately told friends in her circle, she may be winning the election, but this is not the type of election she wanted to win, nor the way she wanted to win it.
She may win sweepingly, but it won’t bring the country together. The Democrats may gain seats in the Senate and the House, but it won’t lead to a united Washington ready to get things done.
Faith in our system of government is being torn down by the very electoral process that is supposed to be a ritual of renewal.
And nothing Wednesday night was likely to affect the course of the race.
Neither Trump nor Fox anchor and debate moderator Chris Wallace caused the sure-footed Clinton to commit a dramatic, game-changing error or collapse in a sudden personal meltdown.
True, she was under pressure on account of her campaign email issues, but she counterattacked by blaming their disclosure on the personal involvement of Putin.
Trump took the bait by repeatedly praising Putin, the richest and most powerful sponsor of terrorist activity on the planet.
Nor did Trump transform himself into the reasonable statesman that no one thinks he is. As if praising Putin weren’t enough, he went on to say that Syrian President Bashar Assad was a “bad guy” but probably the best we could hope for there.
Exchanges on taxes, immigration, the economy and the rest were really just recitations from both candidates of one-liners and accusations they’d used before and that the country had heard.
Clinton’s best moment was her defense of tolerance of and respect for women as well as people of all religions and ethnicities.
The fact that such a defense seems somehow political ― that it is not something everyone would agree with ― shows just how far into the muck Trump has dragged this campaign.
But that very grimness prevented Clinton from raising hopes and sights. Looking peeved, she did not have the chance ― or, perhaps, the emotional energy ― to reach for other inspiring themes.
Constantly on the attack, giving as good or better than she got, Clinton showed that she was willing to settle for a victory based largely on a rejection of Trump rather than an affirmation of her.
And Trump, meanwhile, seemed eager to take down whatever parts of the system he can ― in effect doing what the Soviet Union could not to undermine Americans’ faith in their own government.
U.S. investigative agencies strongly suspect that Putin’s allies have hacked the Clinton campaign. A flood of embarrassing emails have given the country more evidence of the Machiavellian side of politics and of Clinton’s own maneuverings for power.
That won’t be enough to make Trump president. But it won’t help restore faith in American democratic government.
Our faith in our government is our best asset ― and Putin’s target. He hit his target Wednesday night in Las Vegas.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.