Will tonight's presidential debate be another national embarrassment?

May our children forgive us

More of the same?
(Image credit: All images courtesy Getty Images)

The final debate before the 2016 presidential election is tonight. It will be moderated by Fox News' Chris Wallace, who has promised to ask the candidates about social programs and the national debt, immigration, the economy, the Supreme Court, and "fitness to be president." In a different election year, this might make for a real yawner. Not tonight!

Here's what to watch for this evening.

The overwhelming background is Donald Trump's ongoing meltdown. He's been slammed by a seemingly endless series of allegations of sexual assault (as has been seen in other contexts, there is usually a pattern of behavior). So far 10 women have now either levied new assault claims or brought attention to old ones.

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In response, he has lashed out at virtually everyone. He's attacking the GOP leadership for disloyalty. He's attacking Hillary Clinton with utterly fabricated claims about voter fraud and sundry other conspiracy theories, many of them palpably anti-Semitic. The sheer bile and hatred unleashed by Trump as he goes down in flames, attempting to pin the blame for his onrushing defeat on anyone but himself, has crowded out virtually all other political discussion — and indeed most other news in general.

Previous debates had some amount of this, but none has happened since the full deluge of accusations. Trump's history is sure to come up during the debate, and he is sure to say more deranged things in response. His anti-Muslim and anti-Latino bigotry are sure to make an appearance during this debate, as they did in the previous ones.

However, the section on Trump's past might be relatively restrained. Wallace is a conservative, and is probably none too keen to see the Republican standard-bearer beclown himself and his party even more. More importantly, Clinton probably will not press the attack very hard. She is congenitally cautious to a fault, and has repeatedly shown a preference to let Trump hang himself rather than get in an argument that might make her look bad — especially when she has a comfortable lead in the polls, as she does now.

So I expect to hear more of two things, both of which have barely been mentioned in the campaign thus far.

The first is austerity, which has gotten passing but not sustained attention in the presidential debates (though the vice-presidential one was heavily austerian). Elite Washington is saturated in an ideology which declares that budget cuts are by definition good, especially ones that cut social benefits for ordinary citizens. That perspective, funded by hundreds of millions of dollars in agitprop from ultra-rich people like Pete Peterson, has rather fallen by the wayside as the economy has recovered and Trump has dominated the coverage. But the pressure is endless — as seen by the moderator of the vice-presidential debate outsourcing her questions about the budget to one of Peterson's front groups. Wallace will no doubt press this issue, and both candidates can be expected to accept the austerian frame that budget balancing is always good and any new programs must be "paid for," though of course Trump's proposals are not remotely close.

The second is the Supreme Court. Antonin Scalia is still dead, and his seat is still being held open by Senate Republicans, who refuse to grant a vote on President Obama's nominee of Merrick Garland. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) recently let slip what everyone is taking for granted — that Senate Republicans will block any nominee a Democrat makes, if they possibly can. He later walked it back, but it's still very obviously what they will do if they can keep control of the Senate. If they lose the Senate, then Democrats will just as obviously quickly abolish the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations so they can fill the seat.

I honestly don't know where the candidates might go on this one. Would Trump nominate his buddy Peter Thiel to the court, so he can rubber-stamp a new rich-friendly libel law and start suing newspapers? Will Clinton re-nominate Garland — or perhaps Barack Obama? I'll be interested to find out.

Overall, I'm expecting another night of utter, utter depravity and extensive national embarrassment. If you're the praying sort, this might be a good time to beg for mercy for the United States.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.