For two years, the main caricature of Donald Trump has been his favored description of his scale of success past and future—y-u-g-e. But, facing arguably the hugest single moment of his four and a half hours on the debate stage with Hillary Clinton, a moment set up for him to look big in stature in an election filled with low blows, he fell vastly short.
The moment was when Chris Wallace, the Fox News moderator, gave Trump a chance to put away once and for all a troubling aspect of his candidacy, which is his frequent claim that the election is “vastly rigged” against him, and that he might challenge the result. Wallace asked both Trump and Clinton whether they will unconditionally accept the election result, regardless of who wins.
“I will tell you at the time,” Trump said. “I will keep you in suspense.” Clinton, who said she would accept the outcome, rightly called the answer “horrifying.”
Claims of rigged elections are not new per se—they are a standard political tactic in developing countries such as Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Russia, where elections are in fact weighted to the ruling party. They are how opposition leaders in such countries manage to leverage political compromise, and sometimes actually grab power, as Corazon Aquino did in the Philippines against dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the People Power revolution of 1986, for example.
But this has not been a modern tactic in any major Western power, including in the US. No losing American presidential candidate has ever threatened to refuse to concede.
It was a startling moment in an astonishing election filled with unprecedented moments, and perhaps reflected just how desperate Trump’s position has become with less than three weeks to go to the Nov. 8 election.