Four years ago tonight, Nevada hosted a faceoff that some locals dubbed the biggest prize fight in the history of Las Vegas. The prize was certainly big -- the presidency of the United States -- but if the third and final presidential debate of 2016 between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had truly been a sanctioned boxing match, each contender would have been disqualified for punching below the belt.
The most memorable line of the night was uttered by the referee, Chris Wallace, and it turned out to be prescient.
At some point after Bill and Hillary Clinton moved to New York, they became friends with Donald Trump. The former First Couple famously attended Trump's third wedding. When Hillary and the Donald decided they wanted the same job, however, the friendship withered. This can happen in life as well as politics, although it was certainly a new wrinkle to see a novice candidate explain to voters that he knew firsthand that the system needed to be cleaned up because he'd essentially bribed so many politicians -- including Hillary Clinton -- personally.
It was all downhill from there. When Hillary said that Donald's infamous exchange with Billy Bush prior to an "Hollywood Access" taping showed he was unfit to be president, Trump assembled a handful of women who said they'd been sexually harassed (or worse) by Bill Clinton. Then he brought them to the Oct. 10 debate in St. Louis.
When Clinton's camp suggested that Trump was a Russian stooge, he invoked her sketchy email system, punctuating it with a "Lock her up!" call-and-response at his rallies. The complete coarsening of American political discourse was on display on Oct. 19, 2016.
The Vegas event began normally, with each candidate outlining their respective views on abortion, the Supreme Court, immigration, and other issues. They actually had an intelligent exchange on firearms, with Trump stressing his support of the Second Amendment and Clinton emphasizing the carnage wreaked by gun violence. Then the interrupting started. The name-calling quickly followed. Clinton labeled Trump a "puppet" of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Trump responded by calling her the puppet -- and a liar and criminal who should have been prosecuted, and not allowed to run for president.
Later, in what was supposed to be a discussion of entitlement programs, Clinton gratuitously suggested that Trump doesn't pay Social Security taxes. "Such a nasty woman," he said. And so it went. The low blows and head-butting continued unabated. When any glimpse of their common humanity threatened to peek through, the other candidate delivered a rabbit punch.
The part of the debate that seems most contemporary in 2020 concerned moderator Chris Wallace's question near the end regarding Trump's insistence late in the campaign about "rigged" elections. Wallace asked him if he would abide by the outcome of the Nov. 8 vote. Trump demurred. Here is the exchange:
WALLACE: But, sir … 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 the loser concedes to the winner. … Are you saying you're not prepared now to commit to that principle?
TRUMP: What I'm saying is that I will tell you at the time. I'll keep you in suspense. Okay?
CLINTON: Well, Chris, let me respond to that, because that's horrifying. You know, every time Donald thinks things are not going in his direction, he claims whatever it is is rigged against him. … There was even a time when he didn't get an Emmy for his TV program three years in a row and he started tweeting that the Emmys were rigged against him.
TRUMP: Should have gotten it.
The crowd laughed at Trump's aside, which was his intent. In those days, he would still occasionally let his audiences know he was in on the joke. But Hillary wasn't having any of it.
"This is a mindset," she said. "This is how Donald thinks. And it's funny, but it's also really troubling."
She had that right. It's troubling that President Trump is doing it again four years later, too. It's also troubling that, as things turned out in 2016, it was the Democrats who refused to accept the election returns. Except for the hyper-partisan activists in both parties, the rest of America often feels like Chris Wallace did four years ago, when the two nominees -- led by Trump -- kept talking over each other. "I'm not a potted plant here," he said.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.