US presidential debate: Fear and loathing in Las Vegas

Trump's astonishing lack of impulse control betrayed him once again as Clinton goaded him mercilessly

24th October, 2016
A teenager proudly wears a Donald Trump shirt in Cleveland, Ohio Pic: Getty

It seems fitting in so many ways that the final presidential debate of the campaign - and as Democrats would have it, the final debate of all time if Trump is elected President – should take place in Las Vegas.

Predictable prizefight and gambling analogies aside, nowhere is quite such a perfect springboard for the surreal endgame. Elvis impersonators in $9.99 jumpsuits crackling with static and joke shop sideburns persuade tourists to have their picture taken with them for $5. A Zach Galifianakis lookalike in a wheelchair clutches a baby doll wearing sunglasses - a la Hangover movies. He angrily jostles with a homeless man for a prime business slot on the pedestrian bridge outside the Treasure Island resort. Up and down the strip, the pedestrian walkways that lead to five star hotels are lined with homeless people sleeping on cardboard, disabled army veterans begging for change, drug addicts nodding out and young women dressed in bargain basement dominatrix gear offering cracking whips and promising to teach the marauding stag party participants ‘a lesson they wont forget’.

Outside Trump International Hotel, taco trucks have lined up to build a wall of protest against the Republican candidate’s anti-immigrant policies. As mentioned in an earlier column, for more than a year now, there have been daily protests outside the hotel because of Trump’s refusal to enable its 500 employees – who are paid $3 an hour less than their counterparts in other Vegas hotels – to join a union.

But in honour of the debate, most of the five star hotels are using their expensive lighting effects to project stars and stripes or transform their exteriors to red white and blue. A van drives up and down the main drag covered in neon pink and silver flashing lights. It is of the type usually used to advertise Vegas’s seamy strip clubs and ‘erotic dance’ shows. But tonight a 10ft digital image of Trump is displayed on both sides with the words ‘Racist, Sexist, Bully’ emblazoned beneath.

At the sprawling UNLV campus, the mood is upbeat. A local TV presenter, whose requests for an interview with Trump were rebuffed, makes do with a Trump puppet that she uses as a ventriloquists dummy.

Ken Bone, who became an Internet sensation after the second debate, has been quick to monetise his 15 minutes of fame. It was not so much Ken’s question about energy policy that made him an overnight sensation. Rather it was the red jumper he was wearing which coupled with his benign demeanour had the same effect on viewers as the red Teletubby has on toddlers.

The students love him, lining up to get selfies and free hugs. He’s still wearing the red Christmas jumper, only now he has a handler, a slot on the Jimmy Kimmel Show and a special backdrop outside the UNLV debate watch party When the UNLV mascot, an eight foot tall frontiersman with an extravagant moustache ambles over for a photo, he’s ordered to kneel down so as not to overshadow Ken, who is very much the star of his own little show.

During a brief conversation Ken offers what is known in these parts as a ‘humble brag’ explanation for his celebrity. “I’m just an ordinary guy but I guess people just wanted to see a nice guy they could relate to instead of all this negativity,” he says.

When I suggest he’s this election cycle’s Joe The Plumber – the everyman adopted by John McCain following his appearance at a Town Hall meeting in 2008 - he seems slightly offended. Joe the Plumber was, let’s say, cut from a rougher cloth than Ken, and turned out to have a few embarrassing skeletons in his toolbox. Ken assures me he has done nothing that would embarrass his fans or his family; discomfiting internet posts relating to pornography were made before he was famous. Now he has an advertising contract with UBER and another with Izod, the manufacturer of his Christmas jumper.

It’s not like an apprenticeship. You have to know what you’re doing

Everywhere, students are eager to chat and proffer their opinions on both candidates. UNLV attracts more than its share of sports scholarship jocks, so unsurprisingly a straw poll of young male students suggests they are overwhelmingly pro-Trump.

Neema Ngaru, from Cameroon is a 26-year-old pharmacy graduate. She works as an unpaid intern at a Walgreens pharmacy near the Las Vegas strip and is hoping to obtain US citizenship. While she can’t vote in this election, she supports Trump. “I am a conservative. I don’t believe in taking money from those who have worked hard to give it to those who have not,” she says. She is also opposed to abortion and supports Trump’s pro-life stance. Asked whether, given Trump’s virulently anti-immigration stance, she might not have been able to enter the US under a Trump administration, she simply replies: “I am here now.”

Until ten days ago, Anisha Demick, a 25-year-old Nevada native who works as a reservations clerk while studying for an online MBA, intended to vote for Trump. The allegations that he had groped and harassed women didn’t especially bother her, she says. “You should see what it’s like for women here in Vegas.”

But she changed her mind after realising that Trump had failed to morph from mouthy outsider to informed candidate. “The President; it’s the top job. It’s not like an apprenticeship. You have to know what you’re doing.”

However, according to several other UNLV students, there are many more Trump supporters than the polls reveal. ‘This is going to be like Brexit,” he says, echoing Trump’s remarks at an earlier rally. “No-one believed it would happen and boy did they get a shock.”

Hannah Denakashan, a first year technology student is a committed Clinton supporter. “My God! Hillary Clinton. Of course!” but she says most of the 14,000 male students at UNLV are voting for Trump. And she says friends on other college campuses in North Carolina and Ohio tell her the same thing.It’s anecdotal and non-scientific but she believes that Trump has a significantly higher portion of the white male vote on college campuses than is widely believed. “These jocks – you think they’re going to vote for Hillary? They think just like Trump.”

The debate, easily the most substantive and efficiently moderated of the three debates, proved cataclysmic for Trump. He started strongly enough, if you leave aside the fact that he seemed be unable to tell the difference between an abortion and a Caesarian section. “Because based on what she is saying and based on where she's going and where she's been, you can take baby and rip the baby out of the womb. In the ninth month. On the final day. And that's not acceptable,” he said of Clinton’s defence of Roe v Wade. “And honestly, nobody has business doing what I just said. Doing that as late as one or two or three or four days prior to birth.”

The moment was reminiscent of the Frankenstein movie where the monster jerks to life

Someone needs to sit Trump down and explain to him the difference between an abortion and a C-section. Let’s not even complicate the issue by including an induced birth.

From the outset Clinton’s strategy was more worthy of a WWF final than a presidential debate. The deliberate and transparent taunting of her man-toddler opponent, much like a smug older sister who delights in prodding a truculent toddler into a Category 5 tantrum.

The mention of the $14 million silver spoon Trump’s father inserted into his mouth provoked a twitch and an angry toss of his pompadour. Then a sneering jibe about his failure of nerve during a meeting with the Mexican President prompted a shudder and a bunching of fists. And Trump’s astonishing lack of impulse control betrayed him once again. You could almost see the restraints coming lose. The moment was reminiscent of the Frankenstein movie where the monster jerks to life and, amid the flashes and crackle of electricity and the seething vials of bubbles and sulphur, unshackles himself and lets loose.

Once again Clinton goaded him mercilessly. Like a matador plunging banderillas into a weakened but enraged bull, she taunted him about his use of Chinese steel for his buildings, his treatment of women, his record as an exploiter of undocumented workers and his suggestion that the election was rigged.

“Why didn’t you make it impossible for me?” he bawled impotently when she accused him of betraying American steelworkers by opting to purchase Chinese steel instead. And the Putin jibe was almost too easy. When she accused him of being ‘Putin’s puppet’ he could not contain his frustration. “No puppet. No puppet. You’re the pupped. No, YOU’RE the puppet!” he bayed with the fury of a five year old.

His claim that ‘nobody had more respect for women than I do’ prompted a Mexican wave of spontaneous laughter around the venue. There were times when it was difficult not to feel sorry for him.

Trump has expanded his conspiracy theory to include the FBI, the Department of State, the government and army of Iraq, the Kurds and the NATO allies. Even FOX News; hitherto the cheerleaders in chief of his campaign have been accused of leaking debate questions to Hillary.

According to Trump, global elites and billionaires have also joined forces with the inner city minority underclass in the United States, the Catholic Church has lined with the militant pro-abortion factions, and the Republican elites have conspired with the Democratic leadership,

But it was the petulant dismissal of Clinton as ‘such a nasty woman’ and his refusal to promise to accept the results of the election that provided Clinton with the one-two knockout she had been seeking.

When a clearly incredulous Chris Wallace pressed Trump to clarify whether he was refusing to commit to the principle that the loser concedes to the winner, Trump retorted, “What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?”

You could almost hear the groans from his campaign staffers. In the tug of war between the reality TV host and the presidential candidate, the showman’s need to keep his audience in a frenzied state of anticipation triumphed.

The presidential candidate spurned his last chance to broaden his appeal and claw back the ground he had ceded and the potential media mogul opted to serve his opening gambit to his aggrieved niche audience.

The immediate response was one of disbelief and outrage. “It was a deliberate threat tonight out of keeping with American history,” presidential historian Michael Beschloss said. “One of the few things people agree on back to George Washington is that we accept the result no matter how close. It is astounding, a threat to our democracy from a presidential candidate..”

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