I have spent a fair amount of time analyzing Donald Trump's rhetoric, but his performance last night at the final presidential debate blew most of his prior gambits out of the water.
"I will look at it at the time" might be the most contemptible statement the Republican nominee — who was caught on tape bragging about grabbing women by their genitals, called Mexicans rapists, and proclaimed President Obama the "founder of ISIS" — has made yet. It's contemptible for obvious reasons; the democratic process depends on gracious concessions. But it's just as important to consider how cavalierly that phrase subordinates the most powerful nation in the world to Trump's whims. "I'll keep you in suspense," Trump said, as if America were a Bachelor contestant awaiting a rose instead of the other way round.
Consider the contempt that phrase shows for the millions of people watching. He's effectively threatened to delegitimize the time and effort of thousands of citizens who man the polling stations and volunteer during these elections. He disrespects the millions of people who take pride in voting and ensuring that voting is fair. Worst of all, though he has the temerity to suggest that his opinion — the objectively flawed judgment of a man with multiple bankruptcies who brags about sexual assault and not paying taxes — trumps everyone else's in the entire country.
This goes far beyond his claim at the Republican National Convention that "[he] alone can fix it." That was merely an autocratic fool's delusion of grandeur. This is worse, because the claims he packs into "I alone" have expanded. Trump is a low-information voter trying to export his low-information process. Refusing to trust the classified U.S. intelligence reports he started receiving once he clinched the nomination, for example, he has instructed his followers to go further and ignore every data source that tells them something they don't want to hear. "Forget the press, read the internet," he said recently.
Having systematically and baselessly pronounced every objective system to which he might be accountable as invalid or illegal — a list that includes polls, data, newspapers, and actual math — Trump suggests that, in fact-free Trumplandia, he has not just the right but the obligation to hold the nation hostage while he judges the election. He alone will pronounce on its legitimacy, and the basis of his pronouncement will not be anything you — a mere outsider to his marvelous world — can measure. No, the decision will be based on his hunches, his instincts, his feelings.
We know this, because it's how he calculates his net worth: "My net worth fluctuates, and it goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings," he once said in a deposition, and a no doubt flabbergasted opposing counsel asked him to clarify: "You said that the net worth goes up and down based upon your own feelings?"
Yes, even my own feelings, as to where the world is, where the world is going, and that can change rapidly from day to day. Then you have a September 11th, and you don't feel so good about yourself and you don't feel so good about the world and you don't feel so good about New York City. Then you have a year later, and the city is as hot as a pistol. Even months after that it was a different feeling. So yeah, even my own feelings affect my value to myself. [Trump, via Newsweek]
This is useful background when considering the claims of a man who calls the election rigged long before it's happened. Why does he claim this? It's simple: Because he feels bad. It has nothing to do with evidence — he doesn't believe in evidence or expertise, and he's been quite open about that. No, he claims it because he doesn't feel too good right now. And he's taking that feeling, which is familiar to anyone who has failed at something they've tried, and trying to convince his supporters that his feelings are facts, and so are theirs.
He's had help on this front from Republicans like Newt Gingrich, who have advocated this method of campaigning and governing. As Gingrich said on CNN when Trump's nonsensical claims about soaring crime rates were challenged, "The average American — I'll bet you this morning — does not think crime is down, does not think they are safer."
"But we are safer and it is down," says Alisyn Camerota, citing FBI data to that effect.
"No," says Gingrich. "That's your view."
Gingrich's gotcha demeanor in this clip suggests he thinks he's saying something profound here. In a way, he is. This exchange is an X-ray of the dry rot that's weakened the Republican Party. "What I said is also a fact," Gingrich continues, as if patiently explaining something obvious to a child. "The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics that theoretically might be right, but it's not where human beings are." Confronted with the fact that the crime statistics cited come from the FBI — hardly a "liberal" organization — Gingrich makes it clear that he doesn't care. "No, but what I said is equally true. People feel more threatened." Is it possible that these people feel more threatened because their political leaders keep feeding them fear instead of facts? Perhaps. To Gingrich, it doesn't matter. "As a political candidate, I'll go with how people feel, and I'll let you go with the theoreticians."
The Republican Party's present troubles are reducible to this philosophy. The liberals' "set of statistics" "might be right" — a remarkable statement in itself — but Gingrich's perspective goes far beyond rejecting liberal number-crunching; it invalidates the FBI's data too. Spend a couple of decades eroding the public's faith in every organization and mathematical formula that doesn't confirm that what they feel is objectively true, and you get a public that's not too receptive when some Republicans belatedly try to apply the brakes. Instead, they want someone to "say it like it is," that is, to forcefully assert that what they feel to be true is the same as truth itself.
If you feel like black people are criminals (or just people with "no jobs and no education," as Trump said last night), then who cares that the Central Park Five were exonerated by DNA evidence? What does it matter that the real killer confessed? "They admitted they were guilty," Trump said in a statement to CNN this month. "The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous."
Here we have a system that was genuinely rigged — the young men's confessions were extracted under extreme duress, and their convictions were undeniably connected to racial prejudice. That rigged system cost innocent men between 8 and 13 years of their lives. Trump couldn't care less. Actually, he could — he could leave them alone instead of incomprehensibly railing against their release. But DNA evidence is a fact. It's science. And feelings trump facts. He wanted their convictions upheld.
On what logical basis would such a person determine whether an election was "rigged" or not? We have some clues. At a press conference back in July, Trump was asked about his break with tradition in running a very aggressive campaign. "What was the basis for wanting to do it this way as opposed to staying quiet?" "No basis. No basis," Trump replied.
We know how Trump thinks, in other words: He doesn't. There is no basis. He relies on his instincts — instincts that he has likely overrated. At that deposition I mentioned earlier, the hapless attorney tried once again to question Trump about his unorthodox accounting methods: "When you publicly state what you're worth, what do you base that number on?" "I would say it's my general attitude at the time that the question may be asked," Trump responded. "And as I say, it varies."
This is the man who just told a country of 324,707,000 people who need reassurance that he'll honor the democratic process — just as his campaign manager, running mate, and daughter all said he would — that he promises them nothing. He'll "look at [the election] at the time" and decide then whether or not he'll accept what they've said. The basis of his decision will have nothing to do with information, because he refuses to accept any that doesn't favor him. No, it will depend entirely on his "general attitude at the time," and hey, it varies.
A note to the Republican nominee: Mr. Trump, no means no. And if America says no, you will respect that. In the meantime, we're looking into it. We're seeing how we feel. It varies. We'll keep you in suspense.