The third debate had its memorable moments. The “You’re Putin’s puppet”/“No you’re the puppet” exchange was funny. Hillary Clinton’s “I mean, who does that?” about Donald Trump using his own charity’s money to buy a painting of himself was one of the election’s better burns.
But until Trump fully descended into incoherent babbling in the final half-hour, the third debate felt like three people cosplaying a presidential debate. Hillary Clinton remained the well-prepared professional. Donald Trump tried to sound like someone who is running for president. (He was mostly incoherent.) And Chris Wallace played to type: He hit both candidates equally, but his questions had a distinct Fox News sheen to them. Normally that would’ve helped the Republican candidate, but we’re talking about Donald Trump here.
CNN led its post-debate coverage by being shocked—shocked!—that Trump said he might not accept the result of this election, despite reassurances from Mike Pence and his own daughter that he would. Deciding after the election if you will respect the tradition of democracy is a shocking thing. But it’s also in keeping with everything Trump has said for weeks. The setting was different, but Trump hasn’t exactly respected the sanctity of national debates.
This was a microcosm for the third debate as a whole. Trump was shocking and repugnant and disgusting in ways that he has been shocking and repugnant and disgusting for months. Presidential debates are interesting because they reveal how the candidates think about complicated issues. But Trump’s thinking—his seat-of-his-pants, temperamental thinking—was abundantly clear in those first two debates. Make no mistake about it: Trump’s performance in the third debate was a nightmare. But it did nothing to change anything about this nightmare of an election.