If you want to convince voters you are not a sexual predator, there are better ways than spending ninety nationally televised minutes stalking your female opponent around a debate stage. Donald Trump’s body language during Sunday night’s tense, ugly exchange with Hillary Clinton reinforced the disturbing dialogue contained in the Access Hollywood tape leaked last Friday, and, along with attempts to dismiss his references to sexual assault as simple locker room talk, did nothing to reverse the rapid collapse of his support that started over the weekend. By Monday morning, professional athletes who make their offices in locker rooms had taken to Twitter to denounce the candidate and his claims.
With angry facial expressions and the same mysterious, chronic sniffle he had during the first debate, the Republican nominee paced around the town hall stage, following Clinton as she spoke and invading her personal space. His words were as disturbing as his nonverbal communication. He gave voice to every dark conspiracy theory about the Clintons, emptying a sewer of unsubstantiated allegations at his opponent that reached its ugly apex with the chilling promise that once in power he would instruct his attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her and throw her in jail. It was a measure of how threatened Trump feels that he needed to escalate his attacks to this point. And it was a symphony for core supporters who have been hungering for a direct attack like this on the Clintons. Everyone else could be forgiven if they felt they needed a shower.
This assault may have assuaged Trump’s damaged ego but it did nothing to advance his candidacy, which remains in free fall. Hillary tacitly acknowledged as much by largely ignoring her opponents’ tirades and attempting as best as possible to engage those undecided voters who asked a relatively small share of the evening’s questions. By offering an affirmative case for her policy agenda she behaved as if she believed her opponent’s strategy was sufficiently self-destructive to let his behavior speak for itself as she attempted to look presidential with a coiled animal prowling behind her.
What little polling we have so far suggests Clinton is correct. As the election moves into its final weeks, Trump finds himself with the same voters who carried him to the nomination while the rest of the electorate experiences varying degrees of alienation and anger. Most immediately, this has served to drive a wedge between his radicalized followers and conservatives in what was once the Republican establishment. As scores of Republican officeholders retracted their support since the release of Friday’s video, the most vulnerable among them continue to agonize about what to do. This morning, House Speaker Paul Ryan attempted to split the difference, reasserting the fiction that he could refuse to defend his party’s standard bearer without withdrawing his endorsement and emerge with his career intact. The problem for Ryan and Republican congressional candidates in close districts is they need both the Trump faction and non-Trump Republicans to assemble a coalition large enough to win.
It should not be lost on anyone that the Republican rush to the exits is taking place now that Trump has fallen too far behind Clinton to catch up. Republicans who knew what he was months ago but were willing to hold their tongues have now determined it is too costly to support him. Many will find it equally costly to abandon him, as last night’s debate will fire up those Trump voters who live in an alternate universe where it is Clinton who enables sexual assault. Energized and as angry as the candidate, they are prepared to focus their fury on Republican leaders who pushed them into Trump’s camp in the first place. In the longterm, their fury and unwillingness to accept a Trump defeat poses a serious problem for the country and is a threat to the legitimacy of a future Clinton administration. But for now it is tearing the Republican Party in half and has put Republican congressional control in jeopardy. Monday’s debate will soon be forgotten save for its creepy visuals but it will hasten the crack-up waiting just over the horizon as the Republican coalition goes to war with itself.