Hillary Clinton finished Donald Trump in the final debate of the presidential election.
Consider the evidence of the polls going into Wednesday — which show Clinton bordering on a landslide victory — and Trump's inability or unwillingness to overcome his defects as a campaigner. There's no other conclusion. We are now playing out the string. And the only question left after the debate is whether Trump and his hard-core supporters will accept his defeat.
In fact, moderator Chris Wallace made sure that was the big story coming out of the debate, needling Trump on his willingness to accept the results of the election. Trump is allergic to pledges of this sort, and he predictably bristled when asked to commit himself to a course of action ahead of time. "I will keep you in suspense," he said. In this way he showed himself more loyal to the norms of reality TV "teases" than the norms of American democracy. Like most reality TV, I suspect this tease is overblown and will lead to nothing of consequence. But, like the rest of America, I'll tune in anyway.
The format of open-ended discussion and the detailed questions from Wallace set Trump on tilt early. He rambled, he became exasperated. There were moments of minor farce. Trump promised to speed the process of legal immigration "bigly." Trump seemed to know nothing specific about the Supreme Court's Heller decision, which allowed people in Washington, D.C., to possess firearms purchased after 1975 in their own homes. Clinton deliberately pretended the law had something to do with toddlers injuring themselves and murdering others with guns.
Trump showed the tiniest flashes of what made him formidable in the Republican primary, namely his ability to connect with the sense among his supporters that something has gone terribly wrong with the United States. "Our country is stagnant, we've lost our jobs, we've lost our business, we don't make things anymore," he said. And then he tried to tie Clinton to a status quo that so many Americans find dissatisfying. Surprisingly, he delivered the strongest piece of pro-life rhetoric ever uttered by a Republican candidate in a general election, denouncing late-term abortion in graphic and morally charged terms. That was actually surprising considering how he had defended the practice in the past.
When Wallace brought up the issue of Trump bragging about his ability to "grab" women and kiss them without their consent, Trump tried a bit of jujitsu. He said the women who had come forward to accuse him had been debunked. And then he implied that the Clinton campaign had organized the accusations as part of their campaign. He tried to bring up the recent sting video released by conservative muckraker James O'Keefe showing Democratic operatives bragging about provoking Trump supporters into violent reactions at his rallies.
It could have been a way to survive what would be a losing exchange for him. But Trump can't get beyond his own head. He refuses to tell a story in all its details, and instead just refers to the elements and the names in a story he wants to tell. He spoke about "the clips" that revealed this nefarious plotting. He didn't tell people where to find them, or describe the characters in them. He speaks as if he can trust that his whole audience watches Fox News as much as he does. A man unwilling to articulate his own side of a story isn't all that serious about winning the presidency, representing his supporters, or expanding his movement.
Clinton hit Trump for being a hypocrite: He outsources jobs. He uses tax law to avoid paying the kind of income taxes that normal Americans and illegal immigrants pay. She called him a puppet of Vladimir Putin. That last charge probably raises the temperature of international affairs, but it also unmans her opponent. Trump flailed in response, taking the bait and offering words of almost unqualified praise for Putin.
Clinton also used a rhetorical maneuver that she has mastered since the 1990s, of taking something her critics say about her or someone else, and generalizing them. Of Trump's female accusers, she said, "He attacks their dignity, their self-worth. I don't think there is a woman anywhere who doesn't know what that feels like." Hillary is not often compelling, but she can do the basic blocking and tackling that Trump just can't.
At the end of a long, confusing ramble about Syria, Trump said that Hillary would waltz into a wider and more disastrous war. "Lotsa luck, Hillary," he said, petulantly. If he can't come up with a concession speech next month, "Lotsa luck, Hillary" isn't a bad start.