If there was any doubt as to the singular and unique danger that Donald Trump poses to American democracy, the Republican took those doubts and burned them to the ground on Wednesday night.
Standing on a stage at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Trump actually said, out loud, in full view of the television cameras, that he might not accept the results of the Nov. 8, election if he loses.
“I will tell you at the time,” Trump said under questioning from the debate’s moderator, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, who’d pointed out that both GOP vice presidential candidate Mike Pence and Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, had said they’d accept the results.
But not Trump.
“I will keep you in suspense,” he said.
Even by Trump’s own crass standards, it was an admission shocking in its narcissism and depressing in the depths of its banality.
In a quick interjection, Democrat Hillary Clinton cut to the heart of the matter:
“That’s horrifying,” she said.
And even that is an understatement.
Trump has claimed that he’s running to start a populist revolution, that he’s the spokesman for the “forgotten” working man. At his core, Trump is, and always has been, an authoritarian.
From vows to open libel laws to persecute critical journalists and claims in Cleveland that “he alone” held the solutions to America’s problems to his boast at the last presidential debate that he would jail his opponent, the warning signs have been there from the start.
On Wednesday, they were illuminated with spotlights and painted in neon.
In a move unprecedented for any major party candidate, Donald Trump struck a blow at the heart of America’s electoral system, which is premised on the notion of a peaceful transition of power and the acceptance of the results.
Ever conspiracy-minded, Trump has spent the closing weeks of the campaign preparing his supporters for his defeat, even as he planted the seeds that someone else - not his own awful candidacy - might be the architect of that defeat.
“So let me just give you one other thing,” he said. “So I talk about the corrupt media. I talk about the millions of people - tell you one other thing. She shouldn’t be allowed to run. It’s crooked - she’s - she’s guilty of a very, very serious crime. She should not be allowed to run.”
It’s a hateful gambit that’s borne fruit.
Some of Trump’s supporters have spoken of defying an eventual Clinton White House. Those at the borders of both credibility and stability have spoken openly of armed insurrection.
Going into the third debate confrontation between two candidates who clearly neither like nor respect each other, it was tough to imagine what new nugget of information or fresh insight voters could glean about either Clinton or Trump.
Wallace rightfully forced Clinton to explain the controversial Clinton Foundation and the apparently porous walls between its donors and the Clinton-run State Department.
Clinton was effective, however, in explaining the good work her family’s organization had done, juxtaposing it against Trump’s highly questionable wielding of his own foundation.
But it was a rare uncomfortable spot for Clinton, who remained in control of the debate for most of the night on Wednesday.
Time and again, she lured Trump into rhetorical traps. And the Republican, either blithely unaware, or simply uncaring, traipsed into them.
But it was in her comments about Trump’s disregard for the electoral process that she made perhaps one of her most effective arguments.
“He lost the Iowa caucus. He lost the Wisconsin primary. He said the Republican primary was rigged against him,” Clinton said. “Then Trump University gets sued for fraud and racketeering; he claims the court system and the federal judge is rigged against him. There was even a time when he didn’t get an Emmy for his TV program three years in a row and he started tweeting that the Emmys were rigged against him.”
“This is - this is a mindset. This is how Donald thinks. And it’s funny, but it’s also really troubling ... He is denigrating - he’s talking down our democracy. And I, for one, am appalled that somebody who is the nominee of one of our two major parties would take that kind of position.”
Clinton was being charitable calling Trump merely appalling.
He is spectacularly unfit for the White House. And his remarks Wednesday amply demonstrate why he deserves to be defeated.
An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org