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The final presidential debate showed how low our definition of “normal” has sunk

Final Presidential Debate Between Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump Held In Las Vegas Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The scariest moment of Wednesday’s final presidential debate was when Donald Trump refused to say whether he would concede if he lost the election, treating a crucial pillar of American democracy like a reality TV twist to be manipulated.

But the second-scariest thing was that much of the debate felt, well, normal. Trump has so radically readjusted our expectations for presidential candidates that a debate in which a major candidate threatens democratic traditions, blatantly insults his opponent, and is asked about a history of sexual assault could seem, at times, ho-hum.

Rather than beginning with a litany of women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment and assault, as Trump did at the second debate, the final debate began with … policy. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton argued about the Supreme Court, abortion, gun control, immigration, trade, and taxes. Trump toned down his affect so much that he almost seemed tranquilized.

The debate was, for a moment, normal. And that should be terrifying. It shows how low our expectations have sunk.

Here’s what else Trump did during the “normal” portion of the debate:

  • He turned an easy question about what he’d do with the Supreme Court into an account of a grudge match that ended with him forcing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to apologize.
  • He described abortions in the ninth month of pregnancy, which don’t exist, like this: “You can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb.” And he said you can do it “as late as one or two or three or four days prior to birth.”
  • He referred to immigrants dealing drugs as “bad hombres” and the New START treaty as a “startup.”
  • He got in a bizarre fight with Clinton about who was really Vladimir Putin’s puppet that ended with him saying, “No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet.
  • He was unable to articulate a clear position on immigration, his signature issue.
  • He said the United States can no longer afford to defend its allies and repeated that NATO would “have to pay up.”

All of this happened before Chris Wallace asked Trump about the women who had accused him of sexual assault, before Trump said Clinton should not even be allowed to run for president, before he hinted he might not respect the results of the election, and before he called Clinton a “nasty woman.”

This is what a presidential debate now looks like when one of the two candidates is considered to still be on the rails.

Trump could brag about forcing a sitting Supreme Court justice to apologize, duck questions about conservative philosophy, lie about the reality of abortion, return to the racist generalizations about Mexican immigrants that were the basis of his campaign, use a schoolyard “I know you are, but what am I” taunt, show his ignorance on basic foreign policy questions, flip-flop on key policy issues, and threaten the underpinnings of post–World War II peace in Europe. That, for Trump, is acting normal.

This is what George W. Bush called in another context the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

As the Trump campaign has unraveled, it’s provided many occasions to engage in a thought experiment called “Imagine Mitt Romney. …” Imagine Mitt Romney being captured on tape bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy.” Imagine Mitt Romney staying up until 3 am frantically tweeting about a sex tape. Imagine Mitt Romney defending the time he called a woman fat. The point is not that Romney ran a perfectly clean campaign — he let Donald Trump endorse him, after all — but that his straitlaced nature is a foil for Trump’s wanton recklessness.

But the scarier Trump gets, the less funny the contrast is. Imagine if Romney had dodged a question about his Supreme Court philosophy with a personal attack on a justice. Imagine if Romney had threatened NATO as if it were a protection racket. Imagine if Romney had accused President Obama of being Putin’s puppet. Imagine if Romney had been unable to lay out a coherent policy on the single issue that launched his campaign.

It would have been the only thing anyone talked about for days. For Trump, it’s barely a blip, because what happened later eclipsed it so much.

The point here is not that Americans were horribly unfair to Romney, although the idea that “binders full of women” was a debate-defining gaffe is a bit quaint in retrospect. It’s that Trump’s bizarre debate performances have so adjusted our expectations that we’ve forgotten what a normal election even looks like.

Saying Trump did well at the debate is like giving an honest answer to the old joke: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” Trump threatened one of the most important traditions in American democracy by saying he might not concede the election. He personally insulted his opponent. He gave nonsense answers on foreign policy and contradicted many of his previous statements. Nothing about this is normal. It shouldn’t have seemed that way for a minute.

Watch: How presidential debates are won and lost

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