THE LAST WALTZ: Fever Notes From the Third Debate

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THE LAST WALTZ: Fever Notes From the Third Debate

When Keanu Reeves dies, I will miss him. You wouldn’t think so, but I will. I didn’t realize it until I wrote this. He’s such a part of the universe that I take him for granted. Yes, even when his deadpan kung-fu-knowing remains are thrown into rich people’s shark tanks in Palm Springs during Spring Break, I will heave a weary sigh and go back to my macramé with half a heart.

I had much the same realization when the final presidential debate finished Wednesday night, and the Republic was let off the meathook at last. It’s been a long, broken-glass-filled road, slick with bitter tears and spiteful curse words, but here we are.

The big headline was that the Orangeman refused to accept the results of the election. Yet in every possible way, he has already bought into the status quo. The last debate on Wednesday was a harbinger of things to come, a sneak peek at the new order. The final showdown was anything but: Less of a fight, more the final stage of loss for Candidate Trump and His Long March to the Wall. The dullest payola recipients of the political pecking order got wise before the Second Debate that the Donald was a lost cause, and acted accordingly. The Third Debate confirmed what everybody who cared already knew: It was all over but the voting.


After all the assault tapes and the pantsuits and the dank memes, and the Twitter rants and hapless child moderators and the delicious public humiliation of Ted Cruz…after all of that, this was the result, the meeting in Las Vegas. When this business started one hundred years ago, we were all too sad or drunk or happy or dead to care, and now we’ve reached the end.

The endgame was anticlimactic: Every scientific means of prophecy told us Trump was on the road to being stomped in the most hideous way. What came across, behind the tears, behind the laughter, was Trump’s probable future role in American politics.

Relieved of the dreary burden of actually governing and winning, the Orangeman was relegated to a role he seemed to actually enjoy—that of a puckish and insufferable little shit pointing out the crimes of the adults. Let us speak frankly: The man is lazier than O.J. during his hunt for “the murderer.” It would never suit him to pursue policy or obey a schedule, or any of the rules of God or man. I’m convinced Trump would murder half the general population of this country if it would make his ordinary day go a little smoother.

The long-term niche he seems destined to fill—pain in the ass—suits him. To see Trump during the third debate was to glimpse a man making glib, heh-whaddaya-think-about-this-buddy asides to the American people. The subversive junior high yearning we’ve all had to get one up on Vice Principal Grundy was revealed as Trump’s chief rhetorical contribution to the American canons of political discourse. He seemed to be asleep during the periods where the Secretary responded; otherwise he had cut down on the sniffling to a reasonable fifty times an hour.

Hillary was at her godawful best. Look: This is a campaign which genuinely thought that Tim Kaine was just the man to set the land afire. Think—really think—about a group of plotters whose idea of a strategic psy-ops psych-out move is to invite Mark Cuban. I have to wonder: What is it like to explain jokes to these people? “How do we get the Republicans? Simple. We’ll invite Rutherford to next year’s Yale class reunion. Why, they’ll never guess there’s a Princeton man in their midst!”

The 2008 Obama air of the sure winner cleaved close to her, and never left. I am convinced, and will remain convinced, that Trump was designed by the eerie hand of fate to be her foil. No other American, dead or living, could make HRC seem better by contrast. Everything which is off-putting about her is remedied by Trump. It’s absolutely uncanny, and the wonder of it is that it took this long for the two of them to appear on the same stage.

Depending on how you look at it, the interesting or tragic thing about Clinton is that the moments when she is genuine and human are so singular and remarkable that they throw the rest of her artificial, contrived persona into unflattering relief. Nobody botches a line like she does: I still wince when I think about “Trumped-up trickle down.” But when she was giving an obviously long-memorized statement about Trump’s treatment of women, there was an emotionally-weighted pause after the line “That’s who Donald is” — a split-second of hesitation before she began “I think it’s up to all of us to demonstrate who we are.” That moment by itself was worth all of the canned zingers she’d prepped for the last year.

Obama and Bernie had revealed her weak spots, but Trump was the man to remedy that vulnerability. The man’s indifference, boorishness, and unpolished, I-just-woke-up approach make the Secretary’s tone-deafness seem like the cultivated air of a Renaissance cardinal. Standing there in a uniform stolen from Chairman Mao’s closet in heaven, she batted Trump aside as if this was all old hat to her. The same up-yours act that worked so well against the ghastly chorus of Koch eunuchs in the Republican primary fell flat against someone who, rumor had it, had once read a book cover to cover.

Trump demonstrated again and again the key flaw of his entire campaign, and his life: He cannot control himself even when it is in his obvious, concrete, stone-cold self-interest to do so. There was a way to take down Clinton, but he could not make the jump. In every decent rom-com, there’s almost always a montage set to thoughtful, up-tempo pop rock where the heroine gets thoughtful, and gets all her quirky ducks in a row. That will never happen to Donald Trump. There will be no winsome series of quick cuts for him, just long, lingering takes of him staring off into space, daydreaming about bankruptcy and sexual predation.

The entire event made me suspect that God himself had been a fervent reader of Highlights for Children’s “Goofus and Gallant” series and had decided, who knows why, to illustrate this morality tale on the largest possible stage: A contest for control over the nuclear arsenal and climate change.

Wallace, looking spry and chipper at age five-hundred and thirty-six, was all of the things a moderator should be: Capable, groomed, shrill. Following the same hug-David-Broder’s-corpse routine of the first and second debates, Wallace of the collapsing Fox News empire brought out the usual zombie talking points about Social Security vanishing (it won’t), the national debt (austerity fear-mongering), and a host of other issues that nobody outside the Beltway cares about.

Once these major dealbreakers were brought up, Wallace felt safe enough to retreat into the warm hole the Vegas bigwigs had provided him onstage, and pray for the speedy passage of desert winter while the two titans slugged it out in front of him. To his credit, Wallace was a firm hand with the time discipline, but hardly in Raddatz’s league. He belonged to the only-sober-man-at-a-party school of regulation, and it worked exactly half of the time.

I stopped being impressed with him during the Clinton and Trump Foundation exchange. Wallace let two very wealthy people spent a subjective hour discussing all of the neat and not at all illegal actions their retainers and flunkies participated in when they weren’t watching. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place in my heart for the world-saving psychoses of weird rich folk, but it’s currently filled by Batman and the late Patrick Swayze.

Overall, the debate moved along according to established protocol: A sleepy start eventually gave way to the open feuding that Americans of all creeds have come to know and cherish. Ostensibly, the exchanges during the third debate were to cover America’s premiere forum for chemotherapy Muppets, the Supreme Court. It began in a fair enough way: Trump signed his own death warrant by mentioning Ginsburg’s name negatively in public space. He acknowledged that Roe v. Wade would be automatically overturned by means of legal magic. There was discussion of babies and ripping, which will, I have no doubt, surely win Trump the loyalty of suburban women across the Rust Belt.

However, the talk didn’t stay there. The evening showcased the kind of rambling, free-associating political discourse Americans have when they’ve put away a few. As a whole, the debate was a prize tour through all of the anxieties of America’s ruling class: the lurking Kenyan half-brother in the audience, the specter of WikiLeaks publishing your sexts with John Podesta, our deep-seated need to keep bombing the hell out of poor people in the Middle East. All of the goods were on display.

A third, invisible guest, Russian heartthrob Vladimir Putin, played a major role in the exchanges, looming over the proceedings as if he was playing DeNiro’s role in Cape Fear. It was entirely sane and rational, seeing two prospective leaders of an immensely powerful and wealthy country cross swords over a crippled, ineffectual giant as if he and his nation were Beetlejuice. They accused each other of the dark magic of puppetry. It was Vegas, after all.

At the end, what this debate came down to was Hillary Clinton reciting a list of everybody Donald Trump had slammed during the long campaign season. And really, that’s all it took. David Rees, blogging for The Baffler, wrote:

Clinton, in response to Trump refusing to promise to abide by the election results, started listing all the things he has claimed are rigged when they don’t break his way: Iowa Caucus, Judge Curiel lawsuit, etc. etc., and then she mentioned the most pathetic example—he claimed THE EMMYS were rigged, because The Apprentice was snubbed. And then Trump, smirking, interrupted her to say The Apprentice should’ve been nominated, and the crowd applauded, because it was so funny and on-brand for this media goofball.

That was the moment that this stopped being a campaign between the Republican and Democratic nominee, and became National Troll vs. President in Waiting. Barring some drastic change in the next three weeks, the pattern of the next four years has been set.


Yes, I admit: I will miss it. To quote from Idiocracy, much as a square’s love is very different from a pimp’s love, so is the depraved political junkie’s need quite alien from that of the sound, sober citizen. I must confess that the horrors of the past year have been butterscotch and steroids to me, like mother’s milk, if mother’s milk was cut with whatever opioids they’re mainlining in Ohio. I’m sorry to see the political fight go. I wish this could continue for a thousand years. A great nation needs a great entertainment, nay, demands it.

What would 2015 and 2016 have been without the splendid purges of the Republican mutant all-stars? The question to ask is not “Who will be President?” That answer is obvious by now. The bigger mystery is, will we ever see this Circus Circus again?

Common wisdom tells us we ought to shrug and say “no,” but I’m not so sure. I think of Conan O’Brien’s farewell to the Clinton years, published back in 2000. After Bill left the Oval Office, O’Brien wrote a column in TIME Magazine lamenting the end of the gold standard in satire. From here on out, he wrote, we would have to rely on slim pickings. Now, of course, we know different: The close of the first Clintonian era was the opening for two decades of first-rate wild-hog madness.

And this year was the motherlode. Starting from day one, every debate was weirder than the last. And so, eventually, we came to Wednesday. When Trump said “Nobody has more respect for women than I do,” and the audience laughed, and Wallace hushed the crowd, I knew every drop of blood spilled at Lexington and Concord had been worth it. Is this a great country or what?

Jason Rhode is on Twitter.