Donald Trump Is Delusional—and the Third Presidential Debate Proves It

Trump third debate
Donald Trump speaks during the third and final debate on October 19. REUTERS/Mark Ralston/Pool

This has been a brutal, bruising year, one full of sordid allegations of sex, money and power. But Fox News finally had a good night on Wednesday, months after sexual assault allegations drove Roger Ailes out of the network he built. At the third and final presidential debate, Chris Wallace was a forceful, orderly and logical moderator. Liberals who feared a right-wing bias were proved wrong. Wallace's performance really was fair and balanced.

The candidates, however, weren't as inspiring. Donald Trump was less demented than in the previous two debates. He didn't tell Hillary Clinton that she'd be in jail if he became president, but he did shockingly say he would wait and see whether he would accept the results of the election. "I will look at it at the time," Trump mused. His answer betrayed a long tradition in American politics. (Al Gore contested the Florida recount but never the Supreme Court decision.) Republicans like Lindsey Graham were quick to denounce Trump's casual dismissal. Mike Pence and Ivanka Trump have said the GOP nominee would accept the results. But apparently they underestimated his petulance.

Trump's refusal to abide by this tradition speaks to his larger faults. He lives in a fantasy world where facts don't matter, and what he wants for the country often seems preposterous, especially for someone who claims he will "make America great again." At one point, for instance, Trump said he wanted health insurance premiums to go up—meaning Americans would pay more for care—because it would demonstrate that Obamacare is a failure. Getting crushed in the polls with female voters, he sniped that Clinton was a "nasty woman." He referred to the START arms control treaty with Russia as a "start up." When he spoke of the Iraqi assault on Mosul, he initially said the Islamic State group (ISIS) had left because the U.S. telegraphed the assault. Then he said the battle would be much tougher than anticipated. (Both can't be true.) Trump denied the assessment of American intelligence agencies that Russia is behind the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign chairman, John Podesta. The Democratic nominee blasted him, saying Russia was backing Trump because Putin would "rather have a puppet." "You're the puppet," Trump replied, but it seemed more like a childish riposte than a charge that would stick. And after a debate about immigration and building the wall, Trump said, "We have some bad hombres here"—a jibe that seemed like it could push away his few Latino supporters.

What made these mistakes more galling: Trump came into the debate trailing his opponent. New polls show Clinton ahead in Arizona, a state Democrats have won only once since 1952. Clinton also has a huge lead in New Hampshire, and Virginia is now solidly blue. To have any hope of winning the election, Trump has to appeal to more women and make it clear he's not a sexual predator. He also has to convince undecided voters that he's not too erratic to be president.

He failed at both on Wednesday and in a lot of other ways too. Yes, he avoided some of the weirder tics of the second debate, like talking about Bill Clinton's affairs decades after the fact. And his orderly answers about the Supreme Court, the Second Amendment and overturning Roe v. Wade appealed to the conservative base. But then there were the gaffes. Perhaps the most ridiculous: He actually talked about being unfairly denied an Emmy for his reality show, The Apprentice. Doing so isn't likely to sway an undecided voter or bring back wavering Republicans.

Clinton's mannered, well-rehearsed performance was better than Trump's. Some of her answers had a scripted feel—"What kind of country will we be?" she asked—but she did have a few zingers. "Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger," she said. "And I don't think there is a woman anywhere who doesn't know what that feels like." The 2016 campaign has become a national teach-in about sexual harassment, and Trump's categorical denial that he engaged in sexual assault looked weak compared with Clinton's calculated empathy with his alleged victims. As the comedian Patton Oswalt put it, Clinton had "grabbed Trump by the pussy" and swung him around the room.

Wednesday was likely the last time Trump reaches such a large audience. He could have used that stage to his advantage on Wednesday. He's a talented showman who bested a crowded Republican field. But facing just one other opponent, the GOP nominee's lack of preparation showed. (At one point, he said he'd spent much of the day watching cable news.) Clinton's solid command of facts overshadowed the questionable aspects of her record—a self-immolating decision to use a private email server and a reset with Russia that gained the U.S. nothing. Knowing what you're talking about matters.

Which is why Trump finds himself on the verge of a major defeat. He's not only a bad hombre. He's the biggest loser.