The Last Debate Showed Us Who They Are

By Jamie Stiehm

October 21, 2016 5 min read

WASHINGTON — American democracy is meant to be messy, not ugly. This home truth ran through my mind during the third presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

And I had a chance to tell the world about this crumbling character trait as a post-debate guest on BBC World News. Here was a channel to explain Us to Them, across the waves, in the final round of the ugly 2016 campaign.

Nice idea, and London knew what to do. Anchor Mike Embley deftly kept the focus on what actually went down in Las Vegas. Fair enough. Thomas Jefferson, we couldn't fit your vision into the chatty analysis. Besides, you were very rude to the British ambassador once.

Prepping for debate night, I pulled together some pieces of the puzzling, unconventional campaign. For starters, Americans like to like their presidents; it's more personal than in a parliamentary system. But this time, there's not much of that good feeling going around. We are living in scorching political climate change. Trump and Clinton have high peaks of unlikability ratings.

They are familiar, almost inescapable, these October days.

They are classic American archetypes, the big bad bully and the head girl in class, holding all her homework. (The British have another term: bluestocking.) And Las Vegas — the city of spectacle, gaming and bluff — you can't get more American than that.

The Wild West capstone marked a remarkable journey near the end for each — and we should give them that. Clinton and Trump are the most unconventional candidates to come along in 200 years. He has never ran for political office before and captured the Republican nomination as if it was a reality show, shrewdly picking off people one by one. Senators and governors were helpless in his hands.

As a woman, Clinton is by definition an outsider. The former first lady, senator and secretary of state took a thumping by Barack Obama in 2008 in good form and tried again to reach the glass heights of the White House. One of the most prized traits in American lore is never giving up and she has earned respect for that. To its surprise, the Senate found she was a workhouse, not a showhorse.

Trump, as an outsider, embraced and stoked rising voter anger. The wildly rich New York real estate mogul tried to be Everyman to you and me. But that populist anger is real, right now. Liberals ignore it at our peril.

Clinton, as schooled and sophisticated as an outsider can be, appealed to our heads, not our hearts. She has called up a vision of the future, breaking and making American history anew just as Obama had.

A simple line of hers from a 2008 Democratic debate still floats over her attempts to bond with the American people: "I don't think I'm that bad." Maybe you'll never love me, she is saying then and now, but let's be friends.

Even as Trump mocked her repeatedly, violating taboo by calling her a "liar" and a "nasty woman" at the debate, she didn't flinch or respond. Wearing white, looking above his slings and arrows, she kept a smile on her face and took it with a grain of grit.

And Chris Wallace, the heavy-handed moderator and Fox News anchor, did nothing to quell Trump's vicious asides. Zero. Should that surprise us?

Trump's metamessage, when he taunted Clinton for spending time practicing for debates, is that studying policy was just revenge of the nerds. Judgment and temperament were his departments. A master of the universe has no need for details — please. Trust me, I'm Mr. Trump, I know best. And I'll let you know what I think about a peaceful transfer of power when the time comes.

That threat was a gauntlet thrown by a man who hates to lose so much that democracy might prove inconvenient. Big boys can't lose to girls, after all. They hate that.

"That's who Donald Trump is," Clinton said on his record of belittling women, adding that his "mindset" was funny yet darkly troubling.

We must know by now that Trump means what he says. It's not over until he says so. So get ready for an Election Day that breaks all the records. It's bound to be ugly, not messy.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit

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