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The most stunning debate moment: Will Trump accept the outcome of the election?

Last night marked the third and final presidential debate of the US election, with less than three weeks to go before election day. While there were a number of standout moments — Donald Trump referring to Secretary Clinton as a ‘nasty woman’ and the moment moderator Chris Wallace asked about abortion, for example — there was one incident in the debate that stood out because of its particularly chilling nature. When Wallace challenged Trump on his election rigging rhetoric, which has become aggressively pervasive, asking if Trump would accept the outcome of the election, Trump prevaricated, saying he would keep America ‘in suspense’ and that he would ‘look at it at the time.’

This is an unprecedented comment, and also a very alarming one. In the United States, a constant characteristic of the presidential election cycle has been the collective agreement that a smooth transfer of power benefits the entire country, not just the winner of the election. Even in vicious primaries, losers usually concede with grace. In savage general elections, the losers call to congratulate the winner on election night. In rare instances — like in 2000 — there have been problems with the count, but even Vice President Al Gore ultimately conceded to then-Governor George W. Bush.

This is one of the things that at least in theory allows the United States to function as a democracy. Ostensibly, the members of every political party want the best for America — though they may have very different visions of what that is, and how it works, and who should be in charge of it, at the end of the day, Democrats and Republicans, Libertarians and Greens, American Independents and others all collectively agree that the United States benefits from a smooth, stable government.

There’s a collective myth in America of exceptionalism, of ‘America will prevail,’ that’s just that — a myth. Any democracy can fail and any nation can collapse, especially when it comes to vast, diverse countries. The mainland US is 2,600 miles across. That’s a lot of real estate. One of the things that props up this myth, though, is the concerted effort on the part of political parties to make nice at the end, even after fighting viciously. Though cracks have been showing in the Republican facade of late as the party attempts to impose a misogynistic, racist, bigoted, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, homophobic nightmare on the country, one of the reasons Republicans are doing just that is because they’re convinced that this is the ‘right thing’ for America. They’re categorically wrong, and their vision of ‘right’ clearly includes a very narrow and specific definition of the country and what it means to be American, but Donald Trump is currently testing the limits of functionality on the part of the GOP.

As Trump has screamed about ‘election rigging‘ (voter fraud is virtually nonexistent in the United States), Republicans have been split on what to do about it. Some have pressured Trump to let up on potentially dangerous rhetoric that not only casts doubts on the validity of the election results but also encourages Republicans to harass, bully, and intimidate voters — something Trump is actively encouraging with calls to sign up as poll watchers and monitor people who look suspicious, like people of colour. In Ohio, a bellwether state, the Republican Secretary of State even told Trump to back down on the election rigging rhetoric. Others have gleefully joined in, from officials claiming that suits to extend voter registration deadlines in the aftermath of a hurricane are laying the groundwork for fraud to law enforcement arguing that people should riot if Secretary Clinton wins.

Trump, a noted sore loser, is clearly going to be upset about the election results — and that upset might transfer into something more sinister. When questioned, Trump said: “I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking at anything now, I’ll look at it at the time,” before going off on a tangent about election rigging (a callout to the audience at home) and delving briefly into the email scandal that’s plagued Secretary Clinton throughout her campaign. Wallace pressed him on it, demanding that he answer the question, and here was Trump’s response: “What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?”

Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway smugly told the media that Trump would naturally be accepting the election results — because he’d be the winner. Just days before, though, his own running mate had told the media that they would ‘absolutely accept‘ the outcome of the election. This isn’t the first time Trump has broken with his running mate, but it’s certainly a disturbing sign of the nature of their relationship. When the two cannot agree on an issue so fundamental, it does not speak well of a future presidency — Governor Pence, while the advocate of horrific, hateful policies, can at least publicly claim to care about the successful transition of power. His bombastic opponent? Not so much, apparently.

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons


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s.e. smith

s.e. smith is the Editor in Chief at Global Comment, with publication credits including Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Bitch Magazine, The Sydney Morning Herald, and Rewire.