“I will keep you in suspense.”
There were several instances during the third and final presidential debate where Donald Trump said something obtuse, but that jaw-droppingly irresponsible moment — when Trump suggested he might not concede the election in the event that Hillary Clinton wins — is the moment we’ll be talking about for years to come.
In Trump’s eyes, that may be a good thing.
The story is familiar by now: Trump, a self-described real estate mogul, found his calling in reality TV. He cut his teeth in the ‘90s by purchasing and producing the Miss Universe pageant, then made his onscreen debut in 2004 as the host of NBC’s The Apprentice, where he honed the craft of spinning publicity out of nothing and marketed his own pointed bluster as a cornerstone of his burgeoning new career.
There’s no doubt that Trump leveraged his media savvy — by keeping the spotlight on himself and making his opponents look foolish — to level up from a candidate few people took seriously to the official Republican nominee.
But in the past couple weeks, it’s become abundantly clear that Trump has no interest in actually leading the country. Outside of his nonsensical, meandering answers to hard policy questions, he’s been making much more overt plays toward building more of an audience than an electorate.
He’s responded to his poll numbers plummeting by doubling down with the niche of supporters he already has and firing up his devoted fans rather than trying to win any new ones.
This is the kind of move a reality show villain makes when they realize they’re far past the point of making new friends.
Just look at the tactics Trump used throughout the third debate, straight from the reality show villain playbook:
When confronted with something he didn’t like — a mention of the multiple women who have recently come forward to accuse him of sexual assault, for example — he responded by passing the buck and blaming other people for … well, a variety of things.
He went so far as to explicitly suggest that his accusers wanted fame, and that Clinton’s campaign may have paid them to fabricate their stories. He then pivoted to how Clinton’s team “told people to go out and start fist fights and start violence” at his rallies, which is both false and beside the point. But changing the subject and pointing fingers at others were Trump’s only objectives, even if he had to lie to do it.
(Remember in the second debate when he was asked about the Access Hollywood tape where he bragged about being able to sexually assault women, and within two sentences was talking about “ISIS chopping off heads”? Distraction is the man’s best friend.)
2) Last-resort hostility
Though the first two debates certainly weren’t a master class in restraint on Trump’s part, the third didn’t just feature Trump’s continued insistence that Clinton was “wrong” while she was speaking, but a bizarre back-and-forth about who “the puppet” is in regards to Russia and Vladimir Putin (“No, you’re the puppet! You’re the puppet!”). It felt more like an elementary school kid warming up for a recess brawl.
The last debate also has the distinction of being their only face-off where Trump punctuated the final minutes by interrupting Clinton to call her “such a nasty woman.”
Sure, I gasped at how openly he expressed his total disdain for his opponent, but I also gasped because that outburst, more than anything, signaled that Trump knew he had lost this round. And that lazy “nasty woman” jab was all he had left in the tank. Which brings us back to…
3) Creating a cliffhanger
To be a truly memorable reality show villain, you have to be able to capitalize on any and all opportunities to seize focus.
When Trump refused to say that he’ll concede the election if he loses, promising to “keep you in suspense,” he wasn’t thinking about the potentially disastrous consequences (despite Fox News moderator Chris Wallace’s attempts to point them out). He was thinking about how fantastic and dramatic it would be to tease something as huge as not conceding a presidential election.
I can see the ads now: “Tune in on November 8 to find out whether Donald Trump rocks democracy as we know it!”
Given Trump’s arrogance and his history of responding to anything he doesn’t like with a barrage of lies and insults, it’s no surprise that he blatantly tried to grab the spotlight by leaning into his repeated claims that the election is “rigged” against him.
Trump is a showboat who loves an applause line, and with his momentum dwindling, why would he pass up the opportunity to draw more of the attention he so desperately craves?
Trump might have entered this race wanting our votes, but for now, he’ll make do with our shock.