Donald Trump had a much stronger night against Hillary Clinton Sunday than he did when he self-destructed in their first debate two weeks ago. But it doesn’t change anything.
The man is a veritable geyser of offences and embarrassments that erupts as regularly as Old Faithful, and there isn’t anyone who can shut him off — least of all the candidate himself.
Consider how long it seems since he was fat-shaming former beauty contest winner Alicia Machado. And yet that was just two weeks ago.
By last weekend, the conversation had shifted to the new discovery of his old brag about how to get away with sexual assault — in his world, a perk of stardom.
Some Republicans are at last coming to realize there probably is no end to this and the time to get off the Trump train was before it ever left the station.
If only someone had warned them of what lay ahead, they could have tried harder to stop it!
In that sense, it’s a good day to be Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.
Graham has watched and resisted the Trump phenomenon as it overwhelmed his party this year. Instead, he turned his knack for blending blunt talk and casual outrage to enumerating the ways he believed Trump offended America’s core values.
“He’s a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot,” he said last December. “He doesn’t represent my party.”
At the time, Graham thought he might be a lonely voice, but he was nevertheless happy, he said, “to be in a category of one per cent who said ‘BS! This is not who we are as a party, this is not who we are as a nation.'”
It’s likely he foresaw a day when colleagues and friends would be pressed to explain why it took them so long to say the same.
That day has arrived.
Asking tough questions
A broadening swath of Republicans is awakening to the sobering question: “Is Trump who we are now?”
What has shoved the question into their faces is not simply the discovery of Trump’s mindless trivializing of sexual assault. Nor is it even the accumulation of abuses tossed at women, Muslims, Mexicans, veteran POWs, African-Americans, etc.
What’s really put the groan in that question is that it’s begun to look as though the sacrifice of principle to expediency won’t have a payoff.
Four weeks from Election Day, all signs point to a resounding Trump defeat — and with possibly spectacular collateral damage in the Senate and, most astonishingly, in the House.
Republicans who regularly twisted themselves up like pretzels to excuse Trump’s many outrages see they’ll get nothing for it. Some are refusing to play the game anymore. One by one or in small groups, they are abandoning their leader.
Even House Speaker Paul Ryan, the most senior elected Republican in U.S. federal politics, is heading that way now. He said he won’t defend Trump any longer, although he hasn’t yet “unendorsed” him as others, such as Senator John McCain, did last week.
This will get uglier. There are bitterer days ahead.
True, it’s never really looked like Trump could win the White House — he was behind by about six points in Tuesday’s RealClearPolitics polling average, and that’s been the case, give or take, for months. But it’s also true it’s never looked like Trump could lose his base in the Republican Party either.
Sunday’s amped-up energy
Who else could thrill them like he surely did in Sunday night’s debate?
Wounded and with his back to the wall, Trump put on the kind of performance that electrifies his rallies.
He reached down into the depths of “Hillary hatred,” threatened her with a special prosecutor and even jail if he becomes president, and seemed ready to lead the studio audience in a call-and-response chorus of “Lock her up! Lock her up!”
His message to the base in TV land: “I am still your champion!”
There was even the flourish of reality show surprise: In the audience, strategically placed by Trump, sat three women who have alleged they were victims of sexual abuse decades ago after straying into the orbit of Bill Clinton.
It was an evening you can bet they’re still talking about in all the Trumpsvilles big and small across America.
But it bodes ill.
Such a strong and welcome performance for the grassroots of the party is nevertheless trouble for the party leadership.
Without an unprecedented reversal in public opinion, Clinton will be elected president.
That will be a hard punch to the gut for Trump and his supporters, and many will turn against the Republican leaders who they believe abandoned them at the critical hour.
And on the other side, they will blame Trump as the only candidate who could have lost to someone as disliked as Clinton is.
And so with all that already simmering, whatever happens to the Republican Party next seems destined to begin in a boiling stew of bitterness, betrayal, spite and anger.