Lester Holt, anchor of NBC Nightly News and the moderator in last night’s presidential debate, is hearing it from conservative critics about his performance. He pressed Donald Trump on his tax returns and his long record of birtherism, and he jumped in, Candy Crowley-like, when Trump claimed that he hadn’t supported the Iraq War. He didn’t ask Hillary Clinton, correspondingly, questions about her e-mails, the “basket of deplorables,” or the rumors about her ill health.
For me, Holt’s lowest moment came at the end. “One of you will not win this election,” he said. “So my final question to you tonight, are you willing to accept the outcome as the will of the voters?” Clinton responded with pieties about believing in the democratic system and supporting the election results. Trump bloviated for a few moments about illegal immigration, then said that he, too, would support the results of the election.
The candidates should have responded by asking Holt how he could even pose such a question. In primary campaigns, candidates are often asked whether they will support the party’s nominee, if they don’t win the nod themselves. That question implies acceptance of the outcome; the only matter at issue is whether the jilted candidate will get behind his rival, a dilemma of conscience with no legal significance. The implication of Holt’s question, by contrast, is that some alternative exists to accepting the will of the voters in an American presidential election—like, say, legal challenge, political resistance, or organized rebellion.
Trump critics might respond, with some justification, that Holt’s question springs from the nature of Trump’s campaign. Before he became the GOP nominee, when talk persisted that the Republican “establishment” might find a way to deny him the nomination, Trump uttered the words that are his campaign’s true black mark: he threatened that there would be “riots” if he didn’t get the nomination.
On the other hand, the Left’s rhetoric about Trump has become increasingly dire, especially as his chances improved in the polls. Liberals have repeatedly declared him “unfit” for office, a menace to the country and the world—raising the question of how, if he does win, they could justify working with a man who is a danger to the republic. One might ask why Clinton even consented to debate him.
Still, it’s at least plausible that such rhetoric is the overheated result of an overheated campaign that has smashed through one barrier of decorum after another. (What presidential debate before last night’s saw one candidate calling the other a racist? What debate before last night’s brought Rosie O’Donnell into the conversation?) There is no justification for giving it additional reinforcement. Holt’s question elevated both sides’ most fevered warnings to legitimate discussion: let’s consider what extra-legal means you might take, should you not get your way at the ballot box.
There is, of course, no alternative to accepting the results in November—peacefully—whatever they might be. Without the rule of law, we have nothing. The moderator’s other sins last night are at least arguable and negotiable; other moderators have done worse. But, for that atrocious final question, Holt, you’re fired.
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