Everyone agrees that the second presidential debate in Saint Louis was a bit strange:
The presidential campaign took a dark turn here Sunday night as Donald Trump leveled a stream of harsh charges at Hillary Clinton during their second debate, claiming she attacked women who accused her husband of sexual abuse and promising to send the former secretary of state to jail if he is president.
He said that twice. If he becomes president, she goes to jail. Presidents can do that, you know – jail their opponents and throw away the key. They can’t. Perhaps he has some other country in mind. He does think Putin is an admirable strong leader. Such things happen there, but this Washington Post account had more:
Reeling from the release of a 2005 video showing him crudely bragging about using his fame to force himself on women, Trump sought to salvage his candidacy by going on the offensive against Clinton.
He repeatedly interrupted the Democratic nominee. He lashed out at her with a multitude of falsehoods over her foreign and domestic policies as well as her judgment and character. He called her “a liar” and “the Devil.” And as Clinton answered voters’ questions in the town-hall-style debate, Trump lurked just an arm’s length behind her with a grimace on his face.
Lurking? Did he say the devil? It was all that, and all the post-debate polling showed that Hillary had won this one too. She was calm and normal. She let Donald Trump rant on and on. Let him be theatrically angry, interrupting her with insults. She smiled. Let him be unhinged. She’d wait. Let him lapse into incoherency. She’d be normal. She’d win by default, and she did. There are those who seem to want an angry president, often unhinged by his outrage, who doesn’t really care if he doesn’t quite make sense. There are those who want “attitude” – no more than that – but their numbers are few – enough to win the Republican nomination but no more than that.
Of course those few thought Donald Trump won this debate, and that’s the secondary debate that Donald Trump actually won, as Josh Marshall explains here:
I think this was the debate the Breitbart crew – Bannon, Bossie and the rest – wanted from Trump. He hit Bill’s history; he was aggressive and slashing; he repeatedly called Hillary a liar; he managed to list off virtually the entire library of Clinton “scandals” and attack lines. It was all there. If you’re part of the Breitbart world, the Breitbart brain trust, this is the debate you wanted. These were the attacks you wanted to see someone stand on that stage and level against Hillary Clinton. It was a decent shot at the primal scream they’ve hungered for.
Trump won this “primal scream” debate, hands down, and that presented the Republicans with a bit of an existential problem. Democrats are who they are, from careful to progressive to a bit far out there on the left, but basically the same – we’re all in this together and government can be a useful tool for making things better for everyone. Republicans see things differently. There should be as little government as possible. People should take care of themselves. But there should be a government – a quite necessary evil. They’d just do things a bit differently.
The argument, each way, has played out forever, but now there’s something new. There are these “primal scream” folks, led by Donald Trump. They call themselves Republicans too. Are they? If they are, how can they be integrated into the party? Or are they the party now?
Donald Trump says they are. He won the primaries. He’s the nominee. There is thoughtful conservatism, those who cite Edmund Burke and whatnot, and policy wonks like Paul Ryan, and then there’s white-hot anger and outrage and incoherence, but with an attitude. That may be the new Republicanism.
Which will it be? Donald Trump did not lose that second debate – not at all. He fired up his “primal scream” base. They cannot be ignored now. Republicans who have denounced him now have nowhere to go. They may not have a party anymore, but they are fighting back. In fact, the day after the second debate the actual Republican civil war finally broke out, as Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin report here:
The House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, dealt a hammer blow to Donald J. Trump’s presidential candidacy on Monday, dashing any remaining semblance of Republican unity and inviting fierce backlash from his own caucus by announcing that he would no longer defend Mr. Trump.
Mr. Ryan’s stance drew an immediate rebuke from Mr. Trump, who posted on Twitter that Mr. Ryan should focus on governing “and not waste his time on fighting Republican nominee.”
This was war:
Mr. Ryan informed Republican lawmakers on a morning conference call that he would never again campaign for Mr. Trump and would dedicate himself instead to defending the party’s majority in Congress, according to five lawmakers who participated in the call and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Effectively conceding defeat for his party in the presidential race, Mr. Ryan said his most urgent task was ensuring that Hillary Clinton did not take the helm with Democratic control of the House and Senate, two lawmakers said.
That sounds sensible, unless attitude matters more than sense:
The reaction from hard-liners was swift and angry. Over the course of an hour, a stream of conservative lawmakers urged their colleagues not to give up on Mr. Trump and chided Mr. Ryan for what they described as surrendering prematurely in the presidential race. Mr. Trump’s campaign is reeling after a disastrous two weeks that culminated in the release on Friday of a 2005 recording in which he bragged about sexual assault.
One of the conservatives, Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California, attacked the Republicans stepping away from Mr. Trump as “cowards,” three lawmakers said. Another, Representative Trent Franks of Arizona, said, using graphic language to describe abortion, that allowing Mrs. Clinton into the White House would end with fetuses being destroyed “limb from limb.”
Trying to quiet the uproar, Mr. Ryan interjected after about 45 minutes to assure members that he was not withdrawing his endorsement of Mr. Trump, but rather doing what he felt was in the best interests of the House.
Okay, he’s endorsing Trump, but he’ll not defend him anymore. He’ll have nothing to do with him, and Trump doesn’t really care:
Mr. Trump did not repeat his Twitter jab at Mr. Ryan at a campaign event in Pennsylvania Monday afternoon, offering instead a red-meat diatribe unlikely to appeal beyond his dedicated base. He repeated his call from Sunday night’s debate for a special prosecutor to pursue Mrs. Clinton, called her “the devil” and warned that her election would lead to “the destruction of our country.”
Trump was on a roll, but so was Hillary Clinton:
While Mrs. Clinton made no direct reference to the fissures appearing among Republicans, her campaign tried to exploit the moment, releasing several television ads featuring voters who describe themselves as Republicans but plan to vote for Mrs. Clinton.
Jennifer Palmieri, Mrs. Clinton’s communications director, expressed little sympathy for Republicans now fleeing Mr. Trump.
“There was a time when they could have spoken out against him,” Ms. Palmieri said of party leaders like Mr. Ryan. “That time was this summer. Obviously, it is too late now.”
Ryan may know that now, as others do:
In a sign of how deep divisions now run among Republicans, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, held a conference call of his own after Mr. Ryan’s to emphasize his commitment to Mr. Trump. Mr. Priebus told members that the committee was working in “full coordination” with the Trump campaign and planned to direct “a lot” of money to the presidential race.
“Nothing has changed in our support for our nominee,” he said, vowing “an incredible four weeks” until the election.
Mr. Priebus, long a close political ally of Mr. Ryan, made no direct reference to the speaker’s announcement, or to the dozens of governors and members of Congress who have rescinded their support for Mr. Trump.
That’s one way to deal with a problem – announce that it doesn’t exist – but there is a problem:
Mr. Trump’s allies had hoped that the debate would halt the exodus of fellow Republicans from his candidacy, and they publicly implored members of the party on Monday to stick with him through Election Day. Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, Mr. Trump’s running mate, punctured speculation that he might withdraw from the race by pronouncing himself “proud to stand with Donald Trump” in a visit to North Carolina.
Kellyanne Conway, Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, also offered an ominous warning for Republicans fleeing Mr. Trump. She noted on television that Mr. Ryan had been booed by Trump fans over the weekend in Wisconsin and said she knew of Republican lawmakers who had behaved inappropriately toward young women, and whose criticism of Mr. Trump was therefore hypocritical.
Just as telling as the frustration from outspoken conservatives in the House on Monday was the silence from so many mainstream Republicans in the chamber, who showed little appetite to argue for or with their embattled nominee.
The party is tearing itself apart, and Philip Rucker reports on the party tumbling toward anarchy:
New national and battleground-state polls showed Trump sliding since Friday’s publication of a 2005 video of him bragging about sexual assault, putting Clinton in position for a possible electoral landslide. Clinton surged to an 11 percentage point lead nationally in an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll conducted over the weekend.
“It’s every person for himself or herself right now,” former senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said. “The nominee for president is so destructive to everyday Republicans.”
Those everyday Republicans are in a tough spot:
Unlike Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was rendered mute on the subject Monday. He told a business group in Kentucky that if they wanted to hear his thoughts on Trump, they “might as well go ahead and leave,” according to the Associated Press.
Still, there was no wave of defections Monday from Trump, who in an aggressive performance in Sunday night’s debate reassured the conservative base that he would be a relentless aggressor against the party’s shared enemies: Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton.
A new wave of defections would have been useful to those everyday Republicans, but Trump took care of that, by firing up his base, consolidating what power he has:
Many Republican elected officials felt paralyzed Monday, disgusted with Trump’s candidacy but afraid to withdraw their endorsements and feel the wrath of his supporters. The situation was most precarious for politicians in battleground states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, who can save their seats only if they get votes from the most fervent Trump supporters as well as moderates uneasy about him.
Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told House members on the conference call with Ryan that navigating the election was now like “landing an airplane in a hurricane,” according to a lawmaker on the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.
Trump is exacerbating the tensions by rebuking any Republican who betrays him and using the party leadership as a foil. Trump tweeted on Sunday: “So many self-righteous hypocrites. Watch their poll numbers – and elections – go down!”
Trump’s high command is keeping track of Republicans who break from the nominee. As he climbed into a waiting SUV late Sunday in St. Louis with other Trump advisers, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani coolly said that Trump “will remember” who was with him and who was not – and vowed that the outsider candidate would win the White House irrespective of the party leaders’ wishes.
Now all they need to do is get votes from the most fervent Trump supporters as well as moderates uneasy about him and win their seats, even if that’s now impossible. They have to buy into Trump:
Trump has done little to put the fire out. He and his campaign have fully committed to a final month of harsh combat by airing allegations of sexual assault by Bill Clinton.
Following Sunday’s debate, Omarosa Manigault, Trump’s African American outreach director, brought up Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky to reporters and accused the 42nd president and his wife of having “preyed on this intern” and “destroyed her as a human being.”
“This is not a couple you want in the White House,” Manigault said. “People say, ‘Oh, Hillary’s separate from her husband.’ But if you get Hillary in the White House, you also get Bill, and Lord have mercy on us if we have to go through four more years of that.”
This approach is galvanizing Trump’s grass-roots supporters. Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s national finance chairman, said the campaign received “a big surge” of small-dollar donations and positive feedback from the debate.
That’s nice, but in the late nineties Clinton was impeached. Clinton’s favorable numbers soared. Hillary’s soared too – she stood by her husband and tried to make the best of things. The Democrats actually gained seats in the midterms that year. Newt Gingrich lost his job. Don’t go with Monica Lewinsky again. The party made that mistake once, and once is enough.
Well, screw the party:
Trump’s blistering method is being orchestrated by Stephen K. Bannon, the campaign’s chief executive and former head of the acerbic conservative website Breitbart, who has become a near-omnipresent counselor at Trump’s side. He has urged Trump not to worry about any cleavage in party ranks and instead to target Clinton.
This really is the end of the Republican Party that Americans knew, as Josh Marshall notes here:
It’s just like it was in the spring when the GOP party apparatus devised feverish plans to deny Donald Trump the nomination at the convention and then caved without a fight. The great GOP disengagement from Donald Trump – after the emergence of a video in which Trump bragged about assaulting a women – is over after little more than 48 hours…
As it has been for a year, the GOP has nominal power. But Donald Trump owns their voters. That’s the entirety of the story. Nothing has changed.
The surrender looks all but total. The handful of senators and members of congress who jumped ship on Friday and Saturday now appear to have jumped a bit too soon, now stranded in rapidly sinking lifeboats as the damaged main vessel slowly takes on water but yet drifts on to the waterfall.
And Marshall also notes that Ryan now wants credit for jettisoning Trump without actually doing it.
I would say that the real question of the final month of the 2016 campaign is no longer who will be president (yes, not over till it’s over, but…) but what toll Trump’s rhetorical violence and emotional breakdown will take on the GOP Congress. Mitch McConnell has been curiously silent through this drama. Paul Ryan is now trying, far too late in the game, to steer his ship into port. But the wind is churning, the waves are crashing and ship-ripping boulders are right under the water. He has to cross the boulders to find safety. Those boulders of course are Trump’s impassioned supporters, a minority of the electorate but a majority of Republican voters. The exact debate performance that turned off most swing voters was the fantasy debate for Trumpers… that’s the performance they’ve been waiting for: an angry and unapologetic series of verbal assaults on Hillary Clinton. It was the primal scream they’ve been waiting for, for months. Indeed that many from the Republican right have been waiting for, for 25 years. They are even more committed to Trump now than they were yesterday afternoon.
This morning, the Post’s Robert Costa – a great reporter and one of the best for access into the innards of the GOP – said this on Twitter: “In calls this morning, many Rs privately want to defect from Trump. But they say the debate gave them pause since he roused their base.”
This could be a summary of the entire 2016 campaign. It’s why the GOP establishment wasn’t able to ditch Trump in the primaries or outflank him at the convention or disentangle themselves from him now. It’s simple: they can’t drop him because he owns their voters. Every machination and strategy and clever trick comes to grief against that reality.
Democrats, of course, love this:
I believe we have arrived at the stage where Democrats, if they play their cards right and execute effectively, can break numerous Republican candidates over this basic division in the GOP: force candidates to choose where they stand on Trump. Sticking with him loses critical votes in the center, abandoning him triggers a rebellion on the right. It doesn’t take more than a handful of percentage points on either side to lose an election. Critically, pressing candidates day after day for a decision they simply cannot make will have the effect of making them seem hapless, helpless and ridiculous to many voters wherever they stand on the political spectrum. At deciding time, people want a straight answer. I don’t think voting but not endorsing, or endorsing but not defending, or any of the other GOP acrobatics will ward off this demand for an answer.
There is no answer:
The intensity is mounting. The momentum is quickening. The GOP is too big to break down. Its inertia is more than enough to bring it to Election Day. After that some sort of rebuilding may occur or again be delayed. But it’s in the Democrats’ power now to break Republican candidates one by one if they choose and act wisely.
There goes the House. There goes the Senate. They’ve already lost the White House. And it look like they were taken by surprise, but Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog says no one should be surprised:
What we saw from Trump yesterday is what we’ve seen on Fox News, talk radio, and conservative websites every single day for the past twenty years. We’re just not supposed to see it from the Republican presidential nominee, who’s supposed to go light on the demonization and degradation of Democrats that’s the common language of the right. Trump’s just not bothering to engage in the usual deception.
How can we be shocked that Trump said he’d put Hillary Clinton in jail? The mantra of his convention last summer was “Lock her up” – there are voter-created “Hillary for Prison” signs all over America. (And this isn’t even new. In the 2000 campaign, a guaranteed applause line in Pat Buchanan’s stock speech was his assertion that his first act as president would be to turn to the outgoing president, Bill Clinton, and say, “Sir, you have the right to remain silent.”)
And how can we be shocked that Trump believes Bill and Hillary Clinton regularly preyed on women? That’s been a staple of conservative discourse for a generation, and it would have been used by the conservative press against Hillary even if this year’s nominee chose not to raise it personally.
And nothing was hidden:
This stuff isn’t going out on the dark Web – it’s hiding in plain sight. If it shocks you coming from Trump, where were you when it was bubbling up from the fever swamps all these years?
Trump said last night that Hillary Clinton has “tremendous hate in her heart”; in the New York Times, Patrick Healy and Jonathan Martin describe this as a “startling accusation.” But what’s “startling” about it? Conservatives have been describing Democrats and liberals as America’s real hatemongers for years now – if you call out racism, the right says that you’re the real racist. This happens all the time. There’s nothing new here.
Donald Trump is the real Republican Party stripped of phony civility and fake high-mindedness. He represents his party better than John McCain and Mitt Romney ever did. He’s the genuine article. If you’re shocked by his campaign, you’ve had your head in the sand for a long time.
So there was this real Republican Party all long. Ryan and the others didn’t see it. That’s their problem, and Charlie Pierce adds this:
The campaign of El Caudillo del Mar-A-Lago always has been a ridiculous campaign run by a ridiculous man who hijacked a ridiculous political party and now has rendered the entire American political system as ridiculous as the ferret he wears on his head. The ridiculous campaign, the ridiculous man, and the ridiculous political party cannot be considered separately. The ridiculousness of the political party, energized for decades by hay-shakers, Bible-bangers, voodoo economists, jackleg preachers and the altogether crazy-assed elements of almost every political phylum, made it inevitable that a ridiculous man would run a ridiculous campaign one day. What very few people counted on was that the man and the campaign and the party would become so ridiculous that they would make everyone else ridiculous, too.
Some things are inevitable:
Do I mock? Of course, I do. The Republican Party has been edging toward this catastrophe for 40 years, ever since it let goons like the late Terry Dolan help run its senatorial campaigns in the late 1970s. Dolan led to Lee Atwater, who led to Karl Rove and, altogether, they made Donald Trump not an aberration, but a culmination. It took into itself the debris of American apartheid. It allied itself with radicalized American Protestantism. It adopted a basic political philosophy of vandalism and nihilism. When confronted with an opportunity for human decency, such as in the case of Terri Schiavo, the party opted for cruelty. When presented an opportunity for political unity, such as in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, the party opted for the despicable in domestic politics and for the barbaric overseas. When handed an opportunity to change course, such as when the deregulated casino economy nearly destroyed the world in 2008, it doubled down on the basic economic philosophy that caused the wreckage in the first place. And when it became plain that the party was on the wrong side of history, such as the movement for marriage equality, it chose to work in the states through pestiferous god-botherers like Mike Pence…
When it won, the party opted for triumphalism. When it lost, it opted for obstruction. It has blown through democratic norms in every branch of the government. In the executive, it lied and tortured and worked almost exclusively to shove as much of the country’s wealth upwards. As a legislative majority, it has consistently refused to do even the most fundamental tasks of governing the country. In the judiciary, the judges so carefully nurtured in the think-tank terrariums of the organized Right have let loose a flood of money into our politics and have worked assiduously to carve away the franchise from the people who might most inconvenience the party on Election Day. They have come dangerously close to completing the project of creating a new Jim Crow to ensure a new Gilded Age. And now, there are not sufficient roosts for all the chickens. If you have a party dedicated to vandalism and nihilism, how can you possibly be surprised when your presidential nomination is spirited away by a career vandal and a superior nihilist?
So we are where we are:
It doesn’t matter now if Trump drops out or not. He has shown the world what the black heart of modern Republicanism – and of the modern form of conservatism that drives it – really looks like. He has become its beau ideal. He will stand for it until the party commits itself to real change and genuine outreach to those people it now only employs as targets for its timorous angry base to aim at. Whether he stays or whether he goes – and, god, I hope he stays – Donald Trump has burned down all the camouflage. He is what they are.
They don’t want to believe that. They’ll fight civil war to prove that is isn’t so, but there, right in front of their eyes, is Donald Trump and the primal scream crowd, that’s been there all along, that’s now telling Paul Ryan and the others to start screaming too, or just go away. Perhaps they will. Their Republican Party is now Trump’s. Maybe it always was. They may have to start again.