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An almost presidential debate

The final Clinton vs Trump face-to-face featured real policy discussion, and then came Trump’s reality-TV treatment of U.S. democracy
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump debates Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the third presidential debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016. (Mark Ralston/Pool via AP)
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump debates Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the third presidential debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016. (Mark Ralston/Pool via AP)
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump debates Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the third presidential debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016. (Mark Ralston/Pool via AP)

America’s much-despised two-person Rat Pack returned to Las Vegas for a one-night stand Wednesday, rehashing their promises, trading well-worn and predictable insults, and—for much the hour and a half, unbelievable as it may seem—actually discussing economic and military policy.

With the Rolling Stones forced to cancel a concert scheduled for the same hour in the same town—73-year-old Mick Jagger was down with a sore throat, proving that he does not have the stamina to be a rock star—the third and final debate between 70-year-old Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, who will turn 69 next Wednesday, took centre stage in Sin City.

The high (or low) point of the night was Trump’s smug refusal to promise that, should he lose the U.S. presidential election to Clinton—all reputable pollsters predict this, perhaps by an historic landslide—he actually will admit that he lost.

MORE: Trump’s lonely moment of truth

Instead, Trump announced, he will stage a reality-show “reveal,” as if the American presidency were an episode of Style By Jury. (Trump tried the same gambit during the Republican primaries, demurely vowing not to vow to support the eventual winner, a tactic that proved moot when he won.)

“I will tell you at the time, I will keep you in suspense,” Trump smirked in the most other-worldly declamation of an otherwise rather pedestrian (for these two) evening, violating his own running mate’s—and his own daughter Ivanka’s—statements that, should Clinton prevail in the Electoral College on Nov. 8, then of course the result will be accepted.

With some of Trump’s less well-hinged supporters already invoking the spectre of violent revolt in the face of “massive voter fraud” and a “rigged election,” their master’s refusal to promise to adhere to the most fundamental tenet of representative democracy is certain to boost the stocks of America’s manufacturers of firebrands and pitchforks (if any of them still remain since the passage of NAFTA).

If the third and final debate between Clinton and Trump was somewhat less beastly and impolitic than their first two confrontations, it was only because so much trash already had been talked between them that their needling lacked ingenuity and surprise. Sequestered behind lecterns and masterfully moderated by 69-year-old Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace, the format permitted no stalking, no prowling, no looming and no ordinary men and women in sensible sweaters asking sensible questions for the candidates to ignore.

At times during the 100-minute debate, Clinton called her rival “Putin’s puppet,” and he reciprocated by labelling her “such a nasty woman,” but at least there was no reprisal of Trump’s appraisal of the Democrat’s hindquarters 10 days earlier in St. Louis, to wit: “When she walked in front of me, believe me, I wasn’t impressed.”

Instead, it was a stand-your-ground scrap between the Manhattan colossus, in his Chinese-made red tie, and the former Secretary of State, in a high-collared jacket of Gandhian ivory that completed her debate-night tricolour of the red, white and blue. Admirers of each candidate would have found much to cheer; whether a single word swayed a single swing-voter will be revealed on Election Day.

MORE: What Trump TV would mean to conservative broadcasting

The student audience on the gleaming new campus of the University of Nevada Las Vegas—a school once dismissed as “Tumbleweed Tech”—gasped and clapped at intervals, but generally respected moderator Wallace’s appeal for decorum. Indeed, the debate was proceeding with comparative propriety for more than half an hour, in discussions of the Supreme Court, the constitutional rights of fetuses, and the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, when moderator Wallace decided to invoke Wikileaks and Clinton’s sky-high speaking fees.

In fact, it was Wallace—not Clinton—who raised the accusations in recent days by nine women that they had been groped, grabbed and fondled against their will by the real-estate baron (Trump dismissed the stories as having been refuted, which they have not been), and it was Wallace who jumped on allegations of “pay-for-play” at the Clinton Foundation during Clinton’s tenure at the State Department.

Clinton parried these assaults by praising the foundation’s many good works, asserting that “everything I did as secretary of state was in furtherance of our country’s interest and our values.”

In a response to Trump’s accusation that Clinton has little to show for her 30 years in politics and has “bad experience”, she replied: “You know, back in the 1970s, I worked for the Children’s Defense Fund and I was taking on discrimination against African-American kids in schools. He was getting sued by the Justice Department for racial discrimination in his apartment buildings. In the 1980s, I was working to reform the schools in Arkansas. He was borrowing $14 million from his father to start his businesses. In the 1990s, I went to Beijing and I said women’s rights are human rights. He insulted a former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, and called her an eating machine. And on the day when I was in the situation room monitoring the raid that brought Osama bin Laden to justice, he was hosting The Celebrity Apprentice. I’ll let the American people make that decision.”

“Our country is stagnant, we’ve lost our jobs, we’re not making things anymore,” Trump complained, not for the first time. “If we could run our country the way I’ve run my company, you would even be proud of it.”

He repeated his familiar themes: “We take care of illegal immigrants better than we take care of our veterans . . . our inner cities are disasters . . . we have no country if we have no borders . . . Patton and Macarthur are spinning in their graves when they see the stupidity of our country . . . we cannot take four more years of Barack Obama and that’s what you get when you get her.”