It was all going so well Wednesday night, with moderator Chris Wallace keeping the audience relatively quiet and the candidates focused on issues — the Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade, immigration and gun control.
But then it became a reality TV show gone bad, with the worst cliffhanger ever, when Donald Trump promised to keep the country “in suspense” when asked if he would accept the results of the Nov. 8 election.
“I will tell you at the time,” he said, when Wallace pressed the question, after Trump doubled-down on his disproved assertions that voting is “rigged,” his increasingly ominous rally warnings of rampant fraud in the “cities,” and his recruitment of freelance poll-watchers to do something about it.
Hillary Clinton called the debate comments “horrifying,” and anyone who respects our Constitution, who believes in the American experiment, as occasionally flawed as it may be, had to agree.
And that was before Trump, who said no one respects women more than he does, called his opponent a “nasty woman.”
Though I’ve never been a fan of reality shows, I can understand their appeal. Delving into the everyday of the famous and not so famous — knowing all are playing for the camera — provides a respite from our own lives, which may actually be more troubling and dramatic than what a viewer sees onscreen.
So it was appropriate that the debate was staged in Las Vegas, the setting for spectacular stage shows and prize fights. And just like at those fights, celebrities and surprise guests sat ringside, from Obama’s half-brother on the Trump side to billionaire Mark Cuban for Clinton, to challenge the size of candidate Trump’s wallet.
Time for a shower?
But the 2016 presidential race has proved to be more real than even our entertainment-hungry society craves. Sure, the ratings have been through the roof, but you may want to take a long shower afterward. Up to now, it’s playing out more like another popular series “American Horror Story,” this one labeled “Campaign 2016,” and Wednesday night brought a surprise no one wanted, though some Republican leaders may have dreaded it.
Some of them, from Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona to Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, immediately condemned Trump for dancing around whether making America great again means questioning the presidential election results.
The third and last presidential debate Wednesday night between Clinton and Trump was supposed to be about a list laid out by moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News, and for a while it was, with each candidate playing to his and her constituency. Certainly some things, like climate change, had hardly been mentioned and were not on Wednesday night. Criminal justice reform never got much air time, either, a particularly noteworthy omission in a previous debate not that far from Ferguson, Missouri, subject of a shooting, its violent aftermath and a scathing Justice Department report of police procedure. It, too, got scant mention this time.
For this final meeting just weeks before Election Day and with early voting already starting, there were headlines, charges and countercharges. While some tuned in for a picture of what a future Clinton or Trump administration would look like, no doubt others just wanted to grab some popcorn and enjoy. There were greatest hits, as well as tough questions on what has transpired since the last debate — Clinton’s leaked emails and the parade of women who have accused Trump of doing the things he bragged about on a video tape.
There’s a reason President Barack Obama’s popularity is rising as he fades into the distance, stylishly with first lady Michelle Obama at a state dinner for the Italian prime minister. Whatever one thought of Obama’s politics — and watching his Supreme Court nominee languish for a record number of weeks and months is proof of a partisan divide that remains — Americans could be proud of the family image presented to the world, the calm and measured presence he was sometimes criticized for.
A real mess
For those who wanted to pivot to something a little more exciting, Clinton-Trump was a change, all right. Besides being an escape, reality shows also allow a bit of smug superiority, the ability to judge someone whose life is “really” a mess. But did anyone want this much mess?
There is talk of conspiracies, rigged elections and one candidate threatening to paralyze the country if he doesn’t get awarded the winning rose from the American people. Trump, upset when he didn’t get that Emmy, can do a lot more damage with the presidency in the balance.
It’s a preview of a new season that moves from outrageous to scary, an assault on the democratic process that is all too real. The prevailing mood seems to be exhaustion and depression — and no one is entertained.
Though we haven’t yet had Election 2016, many viewers just want this show to be cancelled.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.