The not-so-muted glee that has greeted Donald Trump’s third debate performance is a big mistake. It may be that his electoral slide will continue, and that victory on Nov. 8 is even further away. But longer-term forces are being unleashed, and they will profoundly challenge the workings of American democracy. The potential for damage should not be minimized, even if Trump is beaten badly.
In the short run, it's not at all clear that his refusal to concede an electoral defeat is as big of a deal as the Commentariat believes. Hardcore Trumpites had already bought into the "rigged" election meme, and loudly so, often with scary references to the Second Amendment. But there's no data on whether it's a big deal to most voters. The corrosive effect from months of de-legitimizing the election, and de-legitimizing Hillary, is unknown territory. Trump's rhetoric is intended to undermine public confidence in institutions. It's worked elsewhere. But watching television pundits dancing the outrage dance is not a measurement of public opinion. We'll see.
Trump's outbursts have obscured the longer-term dynamics of his campaign. The mistakes he's making are actually somewhat marginal and stylistic. His core message is being lost in the continuing tirades and quotable, silly and upsetting Trump-isms. A shrewder, less self-destructive demagogue could have inflicted the same damage on public confidence without leaving himself open to accusations of disrespect and nastiness and, more importantly, of disloyalty to the American system. The fact that Trump has opened our political system for a savvier version of himself is a long-term danger.
Take a moment to consider the core Trump message. 1) America is being lost to an invasion of immigrants. 2) American political and economic elites are conspiring to enrich themselves and oppress average Americans. 3) Globalism is threatening American national sovereignty and independence. 4) The American political system is corrupt, rigged and phony. Some of this is repellent per se. Some of it has become repellent because of who the messenger is.
The anti-immigrant stuff has a long history. Racial and ethnic nationalism has been around for centuries. Today it's a fundamental tenet of both the old right and of the new alt-right, and it echoes the worst of the 20th century. Its ugliness repels more Americans than it attracts, and it will recede.
The other positions have much broader reach.
The attacks on elites, globalism and the corruption of elections have support across the political spectrum. The American left's core message on politics and economics is quite close to Trump's core message. Be it Citizens United, or the economic power of corporations, or the influence and power of the 1 percent, the left’s critique of American society conforms to Trump's.
In other words, there's enormous political potential in much of what Trump is saying. Coalitions, even movements, can be built on such convergences.
The leadership of the alt-right understands this. The folks around Trump, the Bannons, Bossies and Breitbarters, are active fellow travelers with weird, racist and anti-Semitic forces, but they're not stupid and they're playing a long game. They have no truck with Republicans or movement conservatives and they're trying to take down the cultural and political norms that have governed American politics for years.
If you listen to calm, teleprompter Trump, you hear that drumbeat. But Trump can't stay on message. Instead of hammering home his coherent and broad-based message, he refused to accept election results, rambled, ranted and lied, doubled down on the serial groping denials, and scowled. It's killing his candidacy. For better or worse, the American people pay enormous attention to a candidate's demeanor and performance. They are viewed as evidence of Trump's temperamental unfitness to serve, and he played into the story. Again.
For that reason alone Hillary is likely to win. The big question is how the alt-right message survives the election, and if it prospers. Much will depend on President Clinton's ability to respond to the growing sense that government no longer functions in the interest of most people. That's a broader problem than disaffected Trumpites. How she governs in the face of that broad undercurrent of dissatisfaction, likely Congressional Republican intransigence and an alienated minority is a complete mystery.
It's genuinely disturbing to think about how the 2016 election might have unfolded with an alt-right candidate shrewd enough and sane enough to avoid Trump's mistakes. It's genuinely disturbing to think about future campaigns led by a less flawed, less impulsive, less big-mouthed demagogue. And it's genuinely disturbing to think about how the government will function in that climate over the next four years.
Nothing good came out of the debate. And the next campaign is likely to be worse. Be worried.
Richard Brodsky is a former assemblyman who is in the private practice of law and serves as a senior fellow at both Demos and NYU's Wagner School. He is a regular columnist for the Albany Times Union and The Huffington Post.