Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, which has repeatedly survived scandals that would have permanently destroyed any other candidate, now faces its biggest crisis thanks to the Washington Post report revealing a video which shows the Republican nominee crowing in 2005 about how his celebrity status allows him to “grab them [women] by the pussy.” While the GOP elite has been willing to tolerate almost any number of vile words from Trump, the sheer brutality of the latest comments proved a step too far.
Since the release of the video, nine Republican senators, including John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee from 2008, have rescinded their endorsements of Trump, joining a list that includes members of Congress and former lawmakers. Senator John Thune of South Dakota has called on Trump to withdraw from the ticket, sentiments which are now being widely echoed. Heading into Sunday night’s debate, there is now a palpable sense that the floodgates are about to burst, carrying away any official GOP support for Trump.
It’s almost surely too late for Trump to salvage any chance of winning the election, but that doesn’t mean he’ll heed the calls to quit. Quite the reverse: From Trump’s vantage point, his best option is to shore up as much support as he can with the base of the party, using the defection of politicians like McCain and Thune to weave a stabbed-in-the-back narrative. This would allow Trump to salvage the two things that truly matter to him—his pride and his brand name—in the event of even a crushing defeat in November. And it’s been apparent this weekend that the only path he can conceive of is sinking to new depths and opening up a full-on, tabloid-style assault on Hillary Clinton’s own character.
If Trump can convince his followers that he’s lost because of a rigged system—and because of feckless elite betrayal—he could conceivably remain the leader of the largest faction in the Republican Party. Just as important for Trump, he’d still have a vast and dedicated audience for the media empire (possibly even Trump TV) that his advisers have talked about. He already has a head start on this, having been preaching about the “rigged” election for months, and having won the GOP primary by setting the base against the establishment. His new messages will build on the ones he’s already been preaching.
But his fans have already heard those messages. To make sure he holds on to his fans, Trump has to add a wrinkle: Going super-nasty against Hillary Clinton, making hay with the allegations that she’s “enabled” her husband’s alleged sexual misdeeds. Trump has to adopt this line of argument because, given his own behavior, undeniably on the record in the video, he has to show why he’s better than Hillary Clinton—or at least keep his loyalists frothing mad at her. And the only thing worse than what he’s unquestionably done are the things Bill Clinton has allegedly done, with his wife as an allegedly willing accomplice.
In his awkward apology video released on Friday night, Trump made clear that Bill Clinton sex scandals were now his life raft. As Trump said,
Hillary Clinton and her kind have run our country into the ground. I’ve said some foolish things, but there is a big difference between the words and actions of other people. Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims. We will discuss this more in the coming days.
On Saturday, Trump served up a little sample of what’s in store, re-tweeting Juanita Broaddrick, who has accused Bill Clinton of raping her in 1978. One of Broaddrick’s tweets read: “How many times must it be said? Actions speak louder than words. DT said bad things! HRC threatened me after BC raped me.” Joshua Green, a national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek, reports that a Trump source told him that the debate strategy would be, “She’s as much an attacker of women as Bill. We’re fully loaded. She’s gonna have to confront her accusers.”
Like a wounded animal, Trump is becoming ever fiercer even as his faces the prospect of his own political extinction. Trying to link Hillary Clinton to her husband’s alleged sexual misconduct is no way to win an election. It will rile up the hard-core Republican base, sure—and it will offend the very voters (college-educated women) that he needs to win back to have a shot at becoming President.
A tabloid strategy gives Trump a new argument against Republican elites, too: “I’m the only one who is tough enough to confront Hillary Clinton with her crimes.” Trump can only hope that will drive an even deeper wedge between the base and those lily-livered elites.
The “grab them by the pussy” video revealed a breathtakingly ugly side of Donald Trump. But we’re about to see something equally horrific as he tries to paint the first major party female presidential candidate as a rape-enabler. He might not unload on Sunday night; the town-hall format makes such an assault harder, and trickier, to launch. But it’s coming. Because what’s at stake now isn’t so much the election as the Trump brand. And he will fight fiercely, at any cost, to save it.