Viciousness reaches new lows in the second debate, but it is unlikely to change the race

Hillary Clinton is still widely favoured to become the next US president. Reuters/Jim Young

How did it come to this? How could The Donald, a man widely regarded as a bad- tempered, bigoted buffoon, become a serious contender for the US presidency?

Italy, after all, elected Silvio Berlusconi several times to lead its government; the Philippines has just chosen as president Rodrigo Duterte, who is presiding over mass killings in the name of law and order. In rather different ways both remind us of Trump, who leveraged a unique combination of money and media attention to hijack the Republican primaries.

The difference is that it seems very improbable that Trump can win the presidential election. The second presidential debate was the most vicious in American political history since the famous clash between William Buckley and Gore Vidal as they fought over the 1968 elections. It is unlikely to have changed the trajectory of a Hillary Clinton victory.

Clinton seemed more defensive and more on edge than in the first debate. Trump was menacing as he prowled the set and growled abuse at the moderators, but some of his low blows worked. Those already partisan have had their views reinforced. Those undecided are unlikely to have been won over.

What we saw was a nasty fight between two insiders, whose lifestyles and access to power is on a scale unusual even in presidential contests. Trump almost managed to deflect questions about his taxes by his invocation of the rich and powerful interests linked to Clinton, although surprisingly without mentioning her family foundation.

In the false moment of civility at the end, when Clinton spoke of Trump’s children and Trump acknowledged her perseverance, it almost seemed as if this was a standard debate in a conventional campaign.

But Trump’s words followed a press conference in which he paraded the alleged victims of Bill Clinton’s sexual abuse – his response to the airing of tapes which revealed, yet again, that he is a sexual predator in ways that have shocked even his own hand-picked vice-presidential nominee.

What Trump dismissed as “locker-room language” has clearly unsettled his campaign in ways that none of his previous sexist, racist and xenophobic comments have. Yes, the Republican establishment is revealed as hypocritical and incompetent. Their failure to take a unified stand against Trump months earlier saddled them with a candidate most of them must have known was temperamentally and intellectually unfit for office.

No matter, the party is now scrambling to save the furniture. This means diverting resources to congressional races and allowing vulnerable Republican candidates, such as senators Kelly Ayotte and Rob Portman to disassociate themselves, from Trump.

The likely effect is that many otherwise Republican voters may not bother to vote at all. And in a country where reaching 60% of the voting-age population is remarkable, turnout matters.

All the pundits agree – itself a matter for some scepticism – that the Democrats now have a good chance of winning control of the US Senate and making up ground in the heavily Republican House of Representatives.

But large numbers of bitterly alienated Americans continue to support Trump, and are unlikely to see Clinton as the legitimate president. Expect to hear more from Trump over the next month about electoral fraud, biased media and unspecified corruption.

Unlike Australia, the US does not have an independent national body to oversee elections. And, in many states, the existence of polling places and make-up of congressional districts has been heavily rigged – usually in favour of the Republicans.

Clinton, like Barack Obama before her, is now talking of the need to work with both sides of Congress and bring Americans together. But if the US was already deeply polarised when Obama became president, this year’s campaign has made the gulf far deeper. Millions of Americans believe Trump’s claim that Clinton is a criminal who threatens their liberties and their guns.

Clinton would be the most-qualified person elected to the White House. But with qualifications comes baggage – much of it a legacy of her husband. The residual bitterness of Bernie Sanders supporters, some of whom still refuse to back her, is nothing compared to the bitterness that Trump’s men – and they are mostly men – will exhibit towards Clinton.

One of the greatest tests for defeated candidates is whether they can accept defeat graciously, however unfair it may feel. The bar was set by Al Gore, who lost the 2000 election after a 5:4 vote of the Supreme Court that was largely a reflection of the political biases of the judges.

We cannot expect Trump to be a gracious loser. But how the Republican leadership, above all Speaker Paul Ryan, behave will be a real test of whether the US political system can function after a year of almost unrelieved viciousness and tawdry behaviour.