The fiasco undoing the Republican Party right now—induced by the fact that the man they nominated to be president is, among many bad things, a sex predator—can be attributed to two basic failures of political due diligence: the failure of Donald Trump’s Republican rivals in the presidential primary to conduct thorough opposition research on the frontrunner, and the failure of Trump to put himself through the same process.
It is also one of the most alarming indictments of both personal and partisan character in the history of U.S. politics. The GOP is exhibiting all of the flaws that deluded Trump into thinking a campaign for the presidency would be in his best interest.
At the highest levels of the Republican and Democratic parties, candidates face such intense scrutiny that they typically vet themselves to get a jump on their enemies. That is, their campaigns hire lawyers and investigators who scour all the forgotten corners of their lives, looking for any questionable activities that could be weaponized by the opposition.
Typically, sex predators never reach this level of politics because they don’t need a team of professionals to poke around and tell them that assaulting countless women and then bragging about it is a political loser. But if you can imagine a politician with such a broken moral compass and such a profound resistance to self-criticism that he didn’t consider behavior like this to be damning, and didn’t imagine that others might find it damning, the self-vetting process is the ultimate backstop. (Had Hillary Clinton subjected herself to self-vetting, her campaign might not have been caught so flatfooted by the revelation that she used a private email server to conduct public business as secretary of state.)
It stands to reason that if Trump’s team had turned up the information that is now pouring forth from his accusers and others, he wouldn’t have been able to mount even the shell of the campaign he’s run so far. Surrogates wouldn’t have attached themselves to him; staffers wouldn’t have accepted jobs with him; the Trump campaign would’ve been over before it started. It’s likely, too, that if any of the 16 other Republicans who sought the presidency had done an even halfway competent job investigating Trump’s past, they would have turned up enough information to smother his campaign in its infancy—at the very least, the people now running it wouldn’t be beset by panic about what kinds of horrifying things Trump might have said and done on tape over the past 40 years.
So this failing falls on a lot of people. It’s on his Republican primary opponents and their staffers, who either failed to uncover or failed to deploy the information becoming public now; it’s on Republican voters, who saw traces of this kind of behavior in Trump’s documented record and either didn’t care or applauded it; it’s on Trump’s inner circle for ignoring what they knew and lacking the curiosity to search for more; and on Trump himself for preferring to surround himself with opportunists and yes-men rather than people of even minimal character.
But if you set aside the failures that got them here, and consider how Trump and the GOP are managing the situation, a picture emerges of a party and a candidate in the grip of the same delusion, projection, and pathological vindictiveness.
The fact that Trump embarked on this campaign to begin with is both breathtaking in its suggestive power and the key to understanding everything about his team’s handling of the crisis.
Even if candidates for office lack the means or will to vet themselves, at some point someone asks them or they ask themselves, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done, and can you defend or explain it convincingly?”
The scope of Trump’s documented transgressions is astonishing. But these sins either did not strike him as transgressive, or he is so reptilian-brained that he doesn’t log the rapacious things he’s done, the self-serving decisions he’s made, in his own mind. They are as elemental and mundane to his existence as breathing and fried chicken—if he did it, then it must have been justified. Perhaps it’s both. In the notorious “grab ’em” tape, Trump recognizes that he behaves this way quasi-instinctually (“I don’t even wait”) but believes it’s acceptable for him to take sexual liberties with non-consenting women because he’s a “star.”
As such, he will not admit fault, and can only neutralize the damage by trying to saddle his Democratic rivals with similar allegations.
He and his campaign have no idea what to expect next, but have decided that the only way to address this scandal is to project it all on to Bill Clinton and by extension Hillary. The problems with this are manifold. Trump has previously defended Bill Clinton from Clinton’s own accusers, and he is is in the midst of behaving in all the ways he’s dubiously accusing the Clintons of behaving in the past. If it’s discrediting for them, it’s discrediting for him, except with him it’s real and happening before our eyes. Trump’s denials contradict the premise of his attacks on Hillary as her husband’s enabler and defender—that women who accuse men of sexual assault deserve the benefit of every doubt.
His denials also require a special benefit of the doubt for himself—that it’s a sheer coincidence the accusations he now faces match his own description of his own behavior, as told to Billy Bush on the Access Hollywood bus in 2005.
As it happens, Trump’s team of Breitbart-dwelling goons has been clamoring for an excuse to retread Bill Clinton sex scandals for more than two decades; but whatever force the accusations against Clinton might have carried is blunted by the fact that Bill’s not running for president, and that Trump is proving himself guilty of every Clinton sin alleged in the right’s bill of particulars.
But they can’t grasp any of that. They are as deeply in thrall to the alternate reality they’ve spent decades creating as Trump is in denial about what kind of man he is.