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A conspiratorial candidate, and America’s deferred dread

Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis, Mo.-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media.

About an hour before the third and final presidential debate, Donald Trump sent a text message to his millions of subscribers:

"About to go on. After tonight, attacks will intensify. I want to know who is standing w/me. Join my FINAL DEBATE LIST."

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Ivanka Trump had texted earlier in the evening to say she would be handing "the list of TOP supporters" to her father before he went on stage. This ritual occurred before each debate, and it is not normal behaviour from a presidential campaign. Most candidates do not warn, after three of his supporters are arrested for plotting to bomb an apartment building of Somali immigrants the day after the election, that "attacks will intensify." Most candidates do not rant about "lists" like a demonic Santa Claus, tracking which subscribers are naughty or nice. ("We're breaking fundraising records but YOU'RE NOT ON MY LIST of supporters," Mr. Trump texted ominously on Sept. 19.)

Related: In final debate, Trump refuses to commit to respecting election result

Ibbitson: Donald Trump's calculated, crazy debate gamble

Kendzior: It doesn't matter who won the second debate: America has already lost

Then again, most presidential candidates do not announce in the middle of the debate that they may not accept the results of the election as legitimate.

One could say the third debate was anti-climactic, but what it really imparted was deferred dread. For the first debate, expectations were set so low – one Politico writer pre-emptively pronounced that Mr. Trump had won "by showing up" – that there was a sense of curiosity and competition. Hillary Clinton, arguing directly with her opponent without a media filter, demolished Mr. Trump with ease.

The second debate, held two days after a tape emerged of Mr. Trump bragging about molesting women, was anticipated like a tornado: It was coming full speed, but what would it destroy, and how much refuse would it sweep up along the way? The answer was a lot, with his flagrant debate denials of wrongdoing spurring more women to accuse him of sexual assault, which led to more hateful rhetoric from him, which led to a plunge in his poll numbers, which led to his only rationalization: Ms. Clinton must be rigging everything.

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The implications of that claim loomed over every word of the third debate.

In Mr. Trump's alternate reality, Ms. Clinton occupies two contradictory positions. First, she is so powerful that she is unilaterally responsible for everything that has happened in the U.S. for the past 30 years. Second, she is innately worthless, someone who, as he said last night, "should not be allowed to run." This dynamic presented itself most clearly when Mr. Trump tried to defend his manipulation of tax loopholes (after bragging about it) by claiming that somehow Ms.  Clinton forced him to not pay his share, though she had nothing to do with it. When Ms. Clinton discussed his finances later in the debate, Mr. Trump flew into a rage, sputtering: "Such a nasty woman."

Ms. Clinton ignored his insults and continued to talk, as she is now practised at doing.

Mr. Trump calls her "the devil," as do prominent Trump supporters such as radio show host Alex Jones. Like Salem witch trial officiants, they have imbued Goody Hillary with magical powers. But Ms. Clinton's greatest power over Mr. Trump is quite simple: she publicly and repeatedly points out that he is accountable for his actions, and notes that his actions have consequences.

One of the consequences of Mr. Trump's recent actions is that he is likely to lose the election. For Mr. Trump, however, this is incomprehensible, and so we arrive at the unprecedented scenario of a candidate who may not concede.

The debate could have – and should have – stopped at Mr. Trump's unwillingness to say he will accept the results of the election. As he rages at rallies and creates conspiracies, he puts not only the democratic process but actual lives at risk. White supremacist and militia groups have been on the rise for eight years, and avenging Mr. Trump's loss may be their unifying cause.

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Americans watched this simulacrum of a debate for portents instead of policies. We learned that Mr. Trump does not apologize – not even to his wife. We saw his inability to control his need for adulation. This combination of neediness, cruelty, and contempt for the electoral process bodes poorly for November.

Earlier in the debate, Ms. Clinton argued, "It comes down to what kind of country we're going to have." From the moment Mr. Trump said he may not accept the results, only one question mattered: whether, in the end, we will have a country at all.

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