Few political observers expected Donald J. Trump to undergo a metamorphosis at Wednesday's third and final presidential debate with Hillary Clinton, and he didn't.
As in the first debate, Trump was relatively disciplined in the early part of the debate. But in hewing to his policy positions, he merely reiterated his by now well-known but wrongheaded stances on a host of issues, including his opposition to legitimate gun control, his eagerness to see Roe vs. Wade overturned and his determination to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Then, as the debated progressed, what former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich — a Trump ally — has called "little Trump" emerged with a vengeance. This Trump is petty and thin-skinned, aggressively ignorant about the world and prone to spin conspiracy theories. In this mode, Trump called Clinton a liar, a crook and a "nasty woman." He had the effrontery to insist, as he has before, that "no one has more respect for women than I do." He suggested that the Clinton campaign was behind the claims by several women that he had assaulted them, but provided no proof for such an assertion.
The excruciating low point of the debate came when Trump, contradicting his running mate Mike Pence, refused to commit himself to accepting the results of an election he has argued is "rigged." Trump told moderator Chris Wallace that "I will look at it at the time. I'll keep you in suspense." With that, Trump irresponsibly undermined voters' faith in the political process for no good reason, and threatened the long tradition in which American candidates, losers included, respect the outcome of elections.
Trump also bizarrely expanded his definition of a "rigged" election to include the fact that Clinton, whom he accused of committing crimes in her use of a private email server, was even allowed to run against him. This is ridiculous. Clinton has not been convicted of — or even charged — with a crime. (And even if she had been, that would not disqualify her from running for president.)
Sadly, the true believers who have rallied to Trump's outsider's campaign probably were fortified in their support by his increasingly shrill criticism of Clinton and his attacks on a supposed conspiracy of the political and media establishment. Undecided voters concerned about his temperament probably remained where they were or shifted their support to Clinton.
As for the Democratic nominee, she again refused to be flustered by Trump and dominated several of their exchanges. In contrast to her somewhat halting response on gun control, she offered a powerful defense of the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision and the larger principle of a woman's right to choose. Trump essentially conceded that by appointing "pro-life" Supreme Court justices he would seek to abolish abortion rights.
Overall, Clinton was sure-footed in discussing both foreign and domestic policy, and she kept her composure as Trump careened further and further out of control. She managed, as she did in previous debates, to get under his skin — linking his baseless accusations about a rigged election to similar complaints he made about the Emmy awards, a reminder that while she dealing with public affairs he was making his name as a reality TV star.
Trump went into the final debate a grievously wounded candidate. That is also the way he left it.