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In the final debate, Trump ensures democracy is on the ballot

Donald Trump isn't just running against Hillary Clinton anymore. He's also taking aim at America's democratic norms as if they were trivialities.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks as Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton looks on during the third U.S. presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center on Oct. 19, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nev. (Photo by Mark Ralston/Pool/Getty)
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks as Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks on during the third U.S. presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center on Oct. 19, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nev. 
At the very end of the first presidential debate of 2016, NBC News' Lester Holt asked the candidates whether or not they'll accept the outcome of the election, regardless of the outcome. Hillary Clinton answered first and didn't hesitate: "I support our democracy. And sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But I certainly will support the outcome of this election."When it was the Republican's turn to answer, Donald Trump initially rambled about 800 immigrants who became U.S. citizens. Holt pressed on, asking again, "Will you accept the outcome of the election?" The GOP nominee eventually said, "The answer is, if she wins, I will absolutely support her."Last night, in the third and final debate, Fox's Chris Wallace returned to the subject and heard a very different answer.

WALLACE: Mr. Trump, I want to ask you about one last question in this topic. You have been warning at rallies recently that this election is rigged and that Hillary Clinton is in the process of trying to steal it from you.  Your running mate, Governor Pence, pledged on Sunday that he and you -- his words -- "will absolutely accept the result of this election." Today your daughter, Ivanka, said the same thing. I want to ask you here on the stage tonight: Do you make the same commitment that you will absolutely -- sir, that you will absolutely accept the result of this election?TRUMP: I will look at it at the time. I'm not looking at anything now. I'll look at it at the time.

The Republican candidate proceeded to complain about news organizations, fraudulent voter registrations, and his belief that his opponent "shouldn't be allowed to run" for president.Wallace, to his credit, reminded Trump of some basic American norms the candidate may not be aware of: "[T]here is a tradition in this country -- in fact, one of the prides of this country -- is the peaceful transition of power and that no matter how hard-fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign that the loser concedes to the winner. Not saying that you're necessarily going to be the loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner and that the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you're not prepared now to commit to that principle?"Trump wouldn't budge. "What I'm saying is that I will tell you at the time," he replied. "I'll keep you in suspense. OK?"Actually, no. It's not OK.A lot happened over the course of last night's debate, but it's fair to say every other development was overshadowed by Donald Trump taking aim at America's democratic norms as if they were trivialities. It was reminiscent of the second presidential debate: there were a variety of noteworthy developments, but by the time Trump vowed to prosecute and imprison his rival, the other moments just didn't seem to matter much.The same was true in Las Vegas: a lot mattered, but Trump's indifference towards the principles of our political system mattered most."[T]hat is not the way our democracy works," Clinton said in response last night. "We've been around for 240 years. We've had free and fair elections. We've accepted the outcomes when we may not have liked them. And that is what must be expected of anyone standing on a debate stage during a general election. You know, President Obama said the other day when you're whining before the game is even finished, it just shows you're not up to doing the job. And let's -- you know, let's be clear about what he is saying and what that means. He is denigrating -- he's talking down our democracy. And I, for one, am appalled that somebody who is the nominee of one of our two major parties would take that kind of position."It was a brutal takedown, which had the benefit of being true. What Trump told the nation last night is without precedent in the American tradition since the Civil War. Period. Full stop.On the surface, the Republican Party's presidential nominee is obviously running against the Democratic nominee, but it's important that voters recognize that he's made democratic institutions and traditions his opponents as well.The debate was probably Trump's last real opportunity to change the trajectory of the race, which he's losing despite his claims to the contrary. Instead of taking advantage of that opportunity, he threw it away, embracing the same dangerous nonsense that put him in this position in the first place.What Republicans hoped for was an event that would push the campaign in a new direction. Instead, the first sentence in the Associated Press' coverage of the debate -- a story that goes to news outlets nationwide -- notes that Trump adopted a posture last night that ended up "threatening a fundamental pillar of American democracy."Conditions like these all but guarantee that Republicans will spend today facing questions about whether or not they agree with Trump's radical approach to the presidential election -- a position many conservatives and some GOP lawmakers have already taken steps to denounce.Overnight, Trump's allies did their best to argue that his position wasn't that unusual. Unfortunately, the defense is insane. Whether Trump's surrogates and staffers are prepared to admit it or not, the GOP presidential nominee isn't just tarnishing his own reputation and that of his party, he also appears to be going out of his way to leave a stain on the American political process itself.Once democratic norms are trashed, they're difficult to reestablish. Last night's debate was a reminder that it's going to take some time for the United States to recover from Donald Trump's presidential campaign.