Maybe Donald Trump was cheated out of that Emmy after all. On Wednesday night, he was the producer of a presidential debate reality show with more twists than one of the early seasons of Survivor.
The Republican presidential nominee is a born showman who openly talks about needing to keep viewers in “suspense,” as when he refused to say whether he’d accept the outcome of the election, guaranteeing his (non?) concession speech will get high ratings.
Trump started out the night as a ringleader for the Great Trump Circus, presenting a peanut gallery of bizarre guests he had invited to the debate for shock and spectacle, a follow-up to his invitations to women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault at the second debate.
There was Malik Obama, Barack Obama’s estranged half-brother from Kenya.. There was Lydie Denier, a woman who was once engaged to Ambassador Chris Stevens, who died in the Benghazi attack. There was Leslie Millwee, a women who recently came forward to tell conservative news outlet Breitbart that Bill Clinton sexually assaulted her while she was a TV reporter in Arkansas and he was Governor.
He has also invited several of the lesser-known speakers from the Republican National Convention, including Marcus Luttrell, a decorated Navy SEAL who survived an ambush that killed the rest of his unit, Pat Smith, the mother of Benghazi victim Sean Smith, and four “Angel Moms” who blame lax immigration policy for the death of their loved ones.
But when he took the stage, Trump played the statesman. An audience that had been primed to watch Siegfried and Roy was instead subjected to a Chekhov play.
For the first half hour, Trump sounded the themes of a generic Republican candidate, controlled and predictable. He gave an answer on the Supreme Court that would appeal to the typical Republican voter. Then another on gun rights. He promised to appoint Supreme Court Justices that “will have a conservative bent,” who “will interpret the the Constitution the way the Founders wanted it interpreted.”
His demeanor was also more repressed. He interrupted Clinton less than he has in previous debates. He had more research to back up his claims. He did not yell or loom menacingly over her shoulder, as he has in previous debates. He did not shout “wrong” while she talked.
Then, in a twist that he probably didn’t intend, he began to revert to form, and the audience was treated to yet another show.
He said the sexual allegations against him were “fictionalized,” suggesting that Clinton’s “very sleazy campaign” had planted nearly a dozen women who have come forward alleging that Trump groped or harassed them, painting a picture of a vast (and highly unlikely) conspiracy. His old debate self began to peek out, interrupting Clinton again, saying “wrong” into his microphone at least twice during her answers. Eventually, he was calling her a “nasty woman” and arguing she shouldn’t be allowed to run for president.
And when pressed on his recent claims that the election would be rigged, Trump refused to say whether he would respect the outcome of the election if he didn’t win. When moderator Chris Wallace asked whether Trump would commit to the principle of the peaceful transition of power, he was coy.
“What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense. OK?”
It was a shocking moment for democratic norms, but it was also a teaser to the next episode of the presidential reality show that Trump is starring in. And like all good showmen, Trump was focused on keeping the suspense going until then.