The Republican Party Is Trapped in a Worst-Case Scenario

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The GOP’s waking nightmare.Photo: Christian Gooden/TNS via Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: the second 2016 presidential debate.

After a weekend of high-profile GOP defections and whispers that the RNC might try to nudge him off the ticket, Donald Trump went into last night’s debate with his campaign, and his party, seemingly in free fall. Did the debate change the momentum?
Yes. While Clinton’s momentum likely continues on the upswing, the momentum building steadily over the weekend among Republican elites to finally dump Trump once and for all was slowed. And that is the worst possible news for the GOP. Trump is still on the same downward spiral that he was before the debate — he was behind by 12 points in Pennsylvania and 3 in Florida in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist poll completed last week before Friday’s bombshell — but now the odds have increased that more down-ballot Republican candidates, unable to escape his death grip on the party, will join him on history’s junk heap.

Let’s face it: In the aftermath of the Access Hollywood video and the stampede of overdue defections it inspired among GOP office holders, many party leaders were predicting (and perhaps secretly rooting for) the debate to be the final straw. An apocalyptic Trump on-camera train wreck would finally give the national party permission to abandon Trump entirely, even if it couldn’t force him to withdraw, and put all hands and funds on deck to salvage any other races it can. But Trump didn’t oblige by having a complete and utter meltdown onstage.

His performance, don’t get me wrong, was both nasty and ridiculous. He couldn’t stay on any subject, could not offer any policy specifics, made stuff up and lied with abandon, threatened to throw his opponent in jail by dictatorial fiat once in the White House, whined wimpily about the moderators, and lurched around the set Rick Lazio style in an invasive manner both menacing and weird. He mentioned Sidney Blumenthal so often and yet incoherently that his only point seemed to be to invoke the Jewishness of his name. He again proclaimed his racist conviction that all American blacks live in uniformly hellish inner cities. He claimed to be against Islamophobia even as he broadly portrayed America’s Muslim communities as terrorist enclaves.

But for all that, he did not deliver on the promise implicit in the grotesque spectacle he mounted just ahead of the debate — his creepy parading of Bill Clinton’s accusers as if they were in a hostage video. Though he made plenty of accusations about the Clintons’ marital and sexual history, he stopped short of an unhinged Joe McCarthy–esque self-immolation. That modicum of restraint allowed him to clear the low bar that was set for him by Republican leaders and robbed them of the pretext they needed to cut him loose. Not without reason did the Washington bureau chief of the Journal, the paper of choice among Republican elites, certify this morning that Trump’s debate performance has put him “back on his feet.” So much for the weekend rumors (or fantasies) that Mike Pence might lead a full-scale party revolt by quitting the ticket.

At the same time, Trump did absolutely nothing that would win over the critical voters who have abandoned him, starting with Republican women. So the GOP is trapped in the worst-case scenario: It is still encumbered with a presidential candidate poised to lose big time, but it has no means to free itself of that albatross without alienating the loyal Trump voters (a.k.a. the party’s base) who cheered the debate and are needed to turn up for the other candidates on the ballot. Checkmate. Even if another incendiary Trump video surfaces now, it is too late for the GOP to wriggle out of the suicide pact it made with the devil.

Hillary Clinton received praise for her poise in the face of what commentators are calling the “ugliest debate in American history,” but she didn’t land a knockout punch. What should she have done differently?
She was workmanlike at best, and possibly thrown off her superior first-debate game by the hand grenade Trump detonated just before last night’s bout. But I think her strategy was the right one: Let Trump be Trump, and get out of his way. The good news for her, and it’s very good news, is that the new WikiLeaks revelations, which would have been devastating during the primary run against Bernie Sanders, and possibly damaging to her chances in the general election were she running against a skillful candidate, have been almost completely drowned out by the latest and loudest Trump scandal. There is more than a little embarrassing material in the passages from the Goldman Sachs speeches that emerged in the hacked emails, some of it confirming one’s worst fears that she is more loyal to her Wall Street donors than to the Sanders-Warren reforms she has paid lip service to in the campaign. And when the subject came up in the debate, it was clear she has no good answer. Her rationalization of her seeming hypocrisy was utter nonsense of a sort you’d expect from Trump: She tried to pass the buck to Abe Lincoln, of all people, or at least Lincoln as fictionalized in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. But it didn’t matter. Trump was too poorly prepared and inexact to bring home the case, and the nation has moved on to a sexual-assault scandal that is more gripping and accessible than whatever water Clinton has carried and, worse, might continue to carry for her friends at Goldman Sachs.

Though the Friday release of Trump’s Access Hollywood tape was widely received as the reason for his skid, some social scientists have begun to argue the opposite: that a growing realization that Trump was not going to win left many Republicans looking for a plausible exit. Considering everything else Trump has said and done during this campaign, why did these comments break the dam?
There’s something to be said for that argument: Trump has been going down since the first debate and this poisonous video was just a handy way for cynical fence-straddlers in tough senatorial reelection races, like John McCain and Kelly Ayotte, to finally jump ship to try to save themselves. After all, given the endless list of other Trump atrocities, including his well-known and much detailed history of insulting, demeaning, and hitting upon women, what was new here? The 2005 video wasn’t a smoking gun, merely a graphic confirmation of what has already been widely reported.

Nonetheless there was something about the video that was particularly disgusting. It wasn’t just that we heard Trump say beastly things clearly and repeatedly in his own distinctive voice. What struck me most about the three-minute video — and which is why it must be watched, not just listened to or read in transcript — is the chilling second half, where Trump and his equally offensive buddy, the television “personality” and NBC News “journalist” Billy Bush, emerge from the bus to meet Arianne Zucker, the actor who was there to greet them before Trump did a stunt cameo on the soap opera Days of Our Lives. Bush functions as a pimp, insisting that Zucker hug the Donald, then presses her to express her sexual ardor for them both. It’s not a sexual assault on the level of those Trump brags about on the bus, but it feels like a sexual violation all the same.

It is an irony of sorts that a presidential candidate who had falsely accused a Miss Universe of appearing in a sex tape was revealed as the participant in a real, and ugly, sex tape of his own just a week later. Polls already show that few Republicans have defected from Trump because of it, evangelical Christian leaders included. But I’m increasingly persuaded that their loyalty will come at the price of the decimation of their party on Election Day.