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Three more thoughts on the third presidential debate

Luckily for the republic, the transfer of authority from the outgoing to the incoming president does not depend upon any display of good sportsmanship by the losing candidate.

Three more thoughts as the final Clinton-Trump debate fades into the “mystic chords of memory,” the final thought being literally about mystic chords of memory.

Thought one, I steal from the estimable Ezra Klein of the online magazine Vox. As Donald Trump unraveled last night from the calm Trump of the first 30 minutes to the blithering, sulking Trump of the last half, it was easy to assume that he had just exhausted his self-discipline. Maybe so, but Klein makes an impressive case that Hillary Clinton made him do it.

Klein goes through the debate transcripts, arguing, with evidence, that Clinton went into each debate with a plan to verbally poke Trump in the weak spots of his ego and id to bring out the beast that lurks within. Here’s a taste of that case (which you can read fully here):

Clinton was able to make Trump’s treatment of women the issue in part because she and her campaign had prepared to make Trump’s treatment of women the issue, and in part because she is a woman and her assault on Trump flummoxed his usual mode of defense, which is to dominate and insult the other men on the stage. By the end of the final debate, Trump was reduced to spitting that Clinton was “such a nasty woman,” a line that spoke to both his horror at being challenged by a woman and his complete inability to control what came out of his mouth after 80 minutes on a stage with Clinton.

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Two things have been true throughout the debates. One is that Trump has been, at every turn, underprepared, undisciplined, and operating completely without a strategy. In one of the third debate’s most unintentionally revealing moments, Trump said, ‘I sat in my apartment today … watching ad after false ad, all paid for by your friends on Wall Street,’ an inadvertent admission that he was inhaling cable news when he should have been prepping for the debate.

But the other reality is that Clinton has been, at every turn, prepared, disciplined, and coldly strategic. She triggered Trump’s epic meltdown purposely, and kept Trump off balance over multiple weeks that probably represented his last chance to turn the election around. She was ready for every question, prepared for every attack, and managed to goad Trump into making mistakes that became the main story the day after every single debate …

… Trump’s meltdown wasn’t an accident. The Clinton campaign coolly analyzed his weaknesses and then sprung trap after trap to take advantage of them.

Clinton’s successful execution of this strategy has been, fittingly, the product of traits that she’s often criticized for: her caution, her overpreparation, her blandness. And her particular ability to goad Trump and blunt the effectiveness of his political style has been inextricable from her gender. The result has been a political achievement of awesome dimensions, but one that Clinton gets scarce credit for because it looks like something Trump is doing, rather than something she is doing — which is, of course, the point.

Thought two hearkens back to my small obsession with separating laws from rules from mere norms. There is no law and there is no rule that requires Trump to graciously concede on election night or the next day, or whenever all the votes are counted and all appeals exhausted, if he should happen to have lost. It’s a mere norm, and a good one. Right now, Trump is explicitly reserving the right to violate that norm, which is only the latest manifestation of his, shall we say, curious personality traits.

But, luckily for the republic, the transfer of authority from the outgoing to the incoming president does not depend upon any display of good sportsmanship by the losing candidate. The transfer will occur with or without such a display. The gracious concession is not needed. If Trump happens to lose and if he or any of his supporters are inspired to take matters into their own hands by violent means, there are definitely laws against that.

Thought three hearkens back further, to the often wondrous topic of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, and what an appeal to national unity in difficult times sounds like in the words of a self-educated master of words.

Between the time of Lincoln’s election in November of 1860 to his inauguration in March of 1861 (Inauguration Day used wasn’t moved to January until 1936) seven southern states had already seceded, in protest of his election. Several more secessions were in process. Lincoln was not threatening war to keep the union together. Rather, he took the position that the secessions had not occurred because secession was illegal. As you know, he lost that argument, at least for the time being. But the divisions between Americans were far more serious than they are today.

In his inaugural address, Lincoln ended with this plea for unity, crafted not by any speechwriter but by Lincoln with the help of his Cabinet, speaking directly to those who despised him:

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I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.