This is where Donald Trump and the Republican Party’s incentives diverge.
The Republican Party needs Trump to contain the damage from his leaked tape. They have a congressional majority to worry about, gubernatorial races to win, a long-term brand to protect.
Donald Trump needs to win, no matter the cost. Either he mounts the single greatest comeback in American political history or he gets blown out and is remembered as a disgrace, a misogynist, a clown, a loser.
Donald Trump doesn’t want to be remembered as a loser.
So his only hope is an insanely high-risk, high-reward strategy — a strategy that gives him a sliver of a chance to win, but at the cost of making a genuine electoral blowout likelier. The Republican Party, by contrast, needs to limit its downside risk, to make sure that if Trump loses, he does so with 46 percent of the vote, not 38 percent of it.
But Trump doesn’t give a damn about what the Republican Party needs.
Donald Trump’s new strategy is a disaster for the Republican Party
Over the past 48 hours, Trump has previewed his suicide charge. “Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course,” he said in a statement after video of his 2005 comments leaked. In his strange, direct-to-camera semi-apology, Trump quickly pivoted to his opponent: “Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims.”
Already, Trump is retweeting Juanita Broaddrick’s accusations that Bill Clinton assaulted her and that Hillary Clinton threatened her. Breitbart News, which has emerged as the Pravda of Trumpism, is running with this front page:
Bloomberg’s Joshua Green says Trump won’t stop there. “Trump’s survival plan thus entails portraying Hillary as enabler of sexual violence — name I heard is Kathy Shelton, 12-y.o. rape survivor,” he tweeted. You can read about the case here, but the short version is that Clinton, as a young lawyer, was appointed by a local judge to defend a rapist.
Trump is far behind Clinton and falling fast. He needs a strategy radical enough to change the race’s fundamental dynamics. This is that kind of strategy. Trump, the ultimate showman, is imagining dramatically confronting Clinton with these accusations during a 90-minute, nationally televised debate, and watching the polls shift 10 points the next day.
And that may well happen. The polls might shift 10 points the day after Trump tries this. But not in the direction Trump hopes.
This isn’t just likely to go wrong in the hands of a candidate as undisciplined and unhinged as Trump. It is likely to go spectacularly wrong — wrong in ways that will force far more Republicans to defect from Trump, wrong in ways that will appall the female voters Republicans need to hold to keep their House majority, wrong in ways that could drive Trump’s vote share from the 40s to the 30s.
Trump is taking on unlimited risk because, to him, a loss is a loss, and so any chance of winning is worth it. But the same can’t be said for the Republican Party. If Trump loses with 47 percent of the vote, they likely keep the House. If he loses with 41 percent of the vote, Paul Ryan probably hands the gavel to Nancy Pelosi.
This is the Republican Party’s worst fear, realized
Over the past 24 hours, there’s been much talk of the devil’s bargain the Republican Party made in accepting and normalizing Trump, and it’s all true.
But that misses the why of what happened. The deeper story was that the Republican Party cowered before Trump and the damage he threatened to wreak on their party.
The key moment for understanding the GOP’s relationship with Trump came in the first Republican primary debate, when Fox News asked the assembled candidates if they would pledge to support the party’s nominee, no matter who it was. Only Trump refused to raise his hand (though it’s worth noting that both Jeb Bush and John Kasich broke that pledge after Trump won). Trump made clear he had no loyalty to the Republican Party, and as such, the party couldn’t take his support, or his supporters, for granted.
Republicans worried that if they offended Trump, if they mobilized the party’s resources to stop him, he would have his revenge — perhaps by self-funding a third-party campaign, or telling his voters to stay home. And so the GOP made its peace with Trump, hoping he would lose the primary by normal means and fade out of the election.
Trump won the primary. But he still has no loyalty to the Republican Party. And now the reality they face is worse than the one they feared: Rather than watching him snipe for the sidelines, they are lashed to his flailing campaign and his desperate final ploy. To make matters wore, Trump has signaled he will go on offense against the Republicans who desert him — a last-ditch strategy to force them to hold the line around his campaign.
So many self-righteous hypocrites. Watch their poll numbers - and elections - go down!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 9, 2016
And Trump has plenty of leverage over the Republican Party — the base is more loyal to him than it is to anyone else. A new Politico poll shows that 74 percent of Republicans want him to remain in the race. The New York Times’s Jonathan Martin reports that Trump intends to use that loyalty, and make defectors pay:
NEWS: Trump urges surrogates to unload on Republicans abandoning him, per new talking pts just forwarded to me (1/)— Jonathan Martin (@jmartNYT) October 9, 2016
There is a story Trump likes to read on the stump. It’s called “The Snake,” and it tells the story of a woman who takes in an injured snake, only to be bitten by it at the end.
"'Oh shut up, silly woman,' the snake says in reply to her cries. 'You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.'"
Trump tells the story as an allegory about Syrian refugees — it’s an ugly, untrue moment in his stump speech that reveals his cruelty, his lack of compassion. But the story describes his relationship with the Republican Party perfectly. They knew Trump was a snake when they took him in. And now they’ll feel his venom.