Early in the second presidential debate, Donald Trump uttered some chilling words about Hillary Clinton. In an exchange about Clinton’s email scandal, Trump said, “I’ll tell you what, I didn’t think I’d say this and I’m going to say it and hate to say it: If I win, I’m going to instruct the attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation because there’s never been so many lies, so much deception.” A few minutes later Clinton replied, “It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law of our country.” To which Trump interjected, “Because you’d be in jail.”
Here was a truly disturbing moment: A political candidate for the highest office in America was stating that his goal is not just to defeat his rival in the ballot box, but actually to imprison her. Trump was of course playing to his base, the riled-up GOP voters who shout “lock her up” at his rallies. But in throwing red meat to the most incensed part of his electorate, Trump revealed both his strategy for the evening and the likely path of the closing phase of the presidential election.
Trump has decided on a “burn it down” strategy because that’s the one way he can hope to keep together his splintering Republican Party support. Which tells us two things: One, Trump has given up hopes of appealing to a wider electorate. Two, his pitch, from here on out, will be a purely negative one.
Although Trump might still occasionally mouth the slogan “Make America Great Again,” his real message now is “Punish Our Enemies.” Even when he repeats his greatest hits (promising extreme vetting of refugees and declaring that inner cities are hell), his voice had an angrier edge.
Trump was never a happy warrior, exactly, but he had some zest in the primaries. There was a hearty gusto in the way he insulted Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. That gusto was gone tonight, replaced by pure agitation and irritation.
Trump was ill-tempered the whole night, constantly interrupting not just Clinton but also moderator Martha Raddatz. He was curt and dismissive to both, as if could barely tolerate being on stage with them. This wasn’t just a question of manners, but cut more deeply into the core message he was conveying. Donald Trump was pissed off—about the release of the video in which he admitted to a pattern of sexual assault, about the Republican leaders who’ve denounced him and fled his campaign in the aftermath—and he’d had enough. In the first debate he complained about the microphone; in this debate, his trouble was with the moderators (not to mention, of course, the truth). But this anger is likely to appeal to his core supporters, who will see him as a fighter against a corrupt establishment that includes Raddatz as well as Clinton.
The clearest indication that Trump was going to follow through with a “tear it all down” strategy took place before the debate; when Trump held a press conference where he invited three women who have accused Bill Clinton of rape as well as a woman who, when she was 12 years old, was a complainant in a sex-abuse case where Hillary Clinton defended the accused. During that presser, Stephen Bannon, former head of Breitbart and now CEO of Trump’s campaign, could be seen in the background smirking. This was a perfect Bannon move: a nihilistic middle finger at the entire political system, both left and right. Trump also invited these four women to be in the audience of the debate.
This was a massive violation of the rules of decorum. Politically, it only makes sense in terms of satisfying hardcore Republican partisans, who already hate Hillary Clinton and now have a chance to see their champion humiliate her. It’s a move of pure retribution and tribal warfare, one that has no discernible upside in terms of winning the election—but considerable appeal in terms of revenge. And for the fire-breathers on the right, Trump scored a big win. As Ann Coulter tweeted, “WOW! Trump killed it tonight. Media have their work cut out for them.”
In the closing weeks of his campaign, Trump has decided on The Samson Option, the idea that “if I’m going down, I’m going to inflict as much pain as I can on Hillary Clinton and both political parties as I can.”
In the service of tearing down the walls around him, there’s nothing Trump won’t hurt. And even if he loses, there is still a massive amount of damage he can inflict on American democracy. This is why his threat to investigate and jail Clinton was so significant, breaking as it did with the core democratic idea that the opposition is legitimate. He’s clearly shown that there’s not a single norm he’s not ready to violate, nor is there any institution—certainly not the Republican Party—that can rein him in. Nothing will stop him from attacking the fundamental legitimacy of the American system. The rest of this election is going to be a bloodbath. The repercussions will last a long, painful time.