Opinion

Michael A. Cohen

Donald Trump undermines the legitimacy of our democracy

Donald Trump during the final presidential debate at the University of Las Vegas  Oct. 19.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Donald Trump during the final presidential debate at the University of Las Vegas Oct. 19.

Over the past 16 months, Donald Trump has offered the American people one reason after another why he should never be elected president of the United States. Wednesday night, at the third and final presidential debate, he did the seemingly impossible — he topped them all and said something that, by itself, literally disqualifies him from the presidency.

When asked by moderator Chris Wallace whether he would accept the results of the election — a pro forma exercise for pretty much every person who has ever sought the White House — Trump refused. “I will look at it at the time … I will keep you in suspense,” Trump said, as if a presidential election is the commercial break before the announcement of the winner on “Celebrity Apprentice.”

Hillary Clinton offered the only appropriate response to this extraordinary and unimaginable moment, “horrifying.”

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Make no mistake; this is Trump’s lowest point (and that is saying something). This is rock bottom. This is a major party nominee actively and seemingly proudly rejecting the will of the people. His words not only throw into doubt the legitimacy of the election; they undermine the legitimacy of American democracy itself.

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Quite simply, representative democracy cannot survive if voters do not have confidence that their vote matters, but also that their vote will actually be counted. The very success and endurance of our democratic system, which is the oldest in the world, relies on the peaceful transfer of power from one president to another and on political leaders accepting the results of an election, even if things don’t go their way. When those elements are in doubt, it’s a recipe for potential violence, but also for eroding the civic belief that the ballot box offers the opportunity for Americans to hold their leaders accountable and affect political change.

If voters become convinced that elections are rigged — why vote? Why abide by laws passed by corrupt officials? Why not take up arms against unelected presidents who have stolen elections? Trump’s rhetoric leads to more deep, dark, terrifying rabbit holes than I can possibly imagine. If both sides aren’t willing to accept the outcomes of an election, what’s the whole point of holding a vote in the first place? In essence, Trump is saying that unless he emerges victorious on November 8, he’ll burn the whole political system to the ground. It’s yet another reminder of the clear and present danger to democracy that Trump represents.

While it’s essential to focus on Trump’s dangerous rhetoric, it would be unfortunate if Trump’s behavior once again overshadowed his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

There’s a lot that can be said about her performance last night. She was her usual wonky, well-prepared self — with well-rehearsed and concise two-minute answers to every question thrown her way.

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She offered a full-throated defense of abortion rights and a woman’s right to make her own health care choices. She attacked Trump’s deportation plan for undocumented immigrants on humanitarian grounds, by talking about the human toll that such a proposal would mean for millions of people. She unabashedly defended her 30 years in public life. And she took him to task for his hateful comments about women, “Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger,” she said in one of her more effective moments. “He goes after their dignity, their self-worth; there’s not a woman anywhere who doesn’t know what that feels like.”

She also confronted Trump aggressively. She mocked him; she condescended to him; she hit him in all the ways that she and her advisers knew would elicit an aggrieved response — on his temperament, his finances, and his thin skin. And of course Trump took the bait — repeatedly.

But perhaps the most telling moment came near the end of the debate when Clinton suggested in an an answer on Social Security that if she succeeded in her plan to raise the contribution level for wealthy American, Trump would “figure out to get out of it.” A clearly annoyed Trump interrupted and called her “such a nasty woman.” It was an unprovoked attack that laid bare his fundamental disrespect not just for Clinton, but also seemingly for any woman who dares to question him.

And yet as millions of Americans gasped in shock, Clinton just kept on going — unrattled and unfazed by Trump’s childish antics. If not for Trump’s stunning repudiation of a basic democratic norm it would have been the signature exchange of the debate. As Trump wallows in his bitterness and his hurt feelings; as he lashes out at anyone who he believes disrespects him; as he struggles to keep his temper under control, Clinton just stays on course with her eye on a much bigger prize.

Wednesday night in Las Vegas she made sure that when that journey ends in 19 days — with or without Trump’s election night concession — she’ll end up being elected president of the United States.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.