If Donald Trump is going down, he’s going down fighting. That’s the main takeaway not only from Sunday night’s debate with Hillary Clinton but also in his reaction to the wave of mainstream Republicans who are abandoning him in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” tape that came out last week. Trump is firing back at those Republicans who have decided to give up on his candidacy. While it’s not clear that there’s anything Trump can say to keep them in line the real point of these exchanges isn’t about what will happen on Election Day. Rather, these are the first shots being fired in the civil war that is looming between Trump and his supporters and mainstream Republicans and conservatives who are hoping to pick up the pieces of the GOP if the election proves to be a debacle for their party.
One of the focal points of Trump’s anger is House Speaker Paul Ryan. Trump let loose with a sarcastic tweet at Ryan today after reports that he told fellow House Republicans he can’t defend the nominee’s behavior and to concentrate on ensuring that Hillary Clinton doesn’t enter the White House with a Democratic-controlled Congress. Trump wrote, “Paul Ryan should spend more time on balancing the budget, jobs, and illegal immigration and not waste his time on fighting Republican nominee.” A day earlier, Trump had tweeted that “self-righteous hypocrites” who disavowed him would be defeated at the ballot box and sent his surrogates instructions to attack such Republicans for being “more concerned with their political future than they are about the country.” Trump’s mention of “country” was, of course, synonymous with his personal political future.
Both the desire of Republicans to flee and Trump’s anger about their decision will only increase as new polls reflect the aftermath of the “Access Hollywood” tape. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll provided a particular dose of bad news for the GOP as it showed Clinton expanding her lead to double digits for the first time in months, with a 46 to 35 percent lead over Trump in a four-way race with Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. Leaving aside the obvious conclusion that a lead of that magnitude this late in the race seals Trump’s fate, Republicans know that it will have a serious impact on down ballot races. One of the new poll’s results highlight that by showing that Democrats now lead in a generic congressional vote over Republicans by a 49 to 42 percent. Thanks to gerrymandering and the way the Voting Rights Act takes minority voters out of competitive districts to create majority-minority seats, the GOP doesn’t have to win a generic vote to hold onto their majority. But that large a margin bodes ill not only for embattled Senate incumbents but Ryan’s House majority.
As has been apparent since Trump secured the nomination, Republicans are between a rock and a hard place. The dangers of associating with a toxic figure like Trump are obvious. But, as the primaries showed, Trump’s supporters are numerous enough that GOP candidates also can’t afford to alienate them either. That puts Republicans like Ryan and his caucus in an impossible position during the next 29 days as their fate is, at one and the same time, dependent on creating some distance from Trump while also knowing that if Clinton wins in a landslide, they will be dragged down with him.
But this won’t end on November 8th. Trump’s fans are as angry about what is happening as he is and are also vowing vengeance on those to blame for their hero’s impending demise. Yet the form that revenge will take in the rubble Trump leaves behind isn’t clear. Will Trump remain a factor in Republican politics in the 2018 midterms? Is it conceivable that he will take part in some way in the next presidential election? The answer to both questions are unknown. At any rate, mainstream Republicans shouldn’t think they can take back the party from Trump’s followers without a fight.
All that means there are no safe choices for Republicans in the coming month. Someone’s going to be angry at them no matter which option they choose, so there is no good reason for those whose consciences are rightly troubled by associating with the thuggish nominee to go down with the ship with him.