So, that unraveled quickly.
The "grab 'em by the pussy" tape. The waves of Republican condemnation (and, less often, outright rejection). The midnight quasi-apology. The dictatorial threat to jail his political opponent. The misdirection, parading before cameras women who alleged that his opponent's husband did what he'd admitted doing on tape. The dozen or so women (and counting) who've come forward to say that, yes, he's done exactly what he bragged about doing. The lashing out, threatening to sue the New York Times and People. Saying his 68-year-old rival's backside wasn't impressive. Accusing his accusers of lying, of being too unattractive to grope, of being in league with his rival's campaign, which in turn was in league with a Mexican businessman and the international banking cabal (cough Jews cough).
Then there's the would-be demagogue's dangerous insinuation that if he loses, that means the election was rigged. His followers are listening. One told the Boston Globe, "If she's in office, I hope we can start a coup. She should be in prison or shot." Another said he was going to become a poll-watcher to keep an eye on "Mexicans" and "Syrians": "I'm going to make them a little bit nervous."
Think about how insane this is: open talk (to a reporter!) of a coup and voter intimidation, egged on by a man who wants to be president of the United States.
It suffices to say that American politics has never seen a 10-day stretch quite like this – a "total meltdown," as the Time magazine cover put it. A candidate who, not so long ago, was a few good breaks away from the Oval Office, is now a pariah, a laughingstock, a target of unrelenting opprobrium. Three weeks is an eternity in politics, but it sure looks like the S.S. Trump has hit the iceberg. As I write, Donald Trump is about 6 points behind Hillary Clinton and, more problematic, struggling to get above 40 percent.
For the purposes of this column, let's assume that holds – that Trump is toast and that the Democrats will regain a slim Senate majority and win seats in the House. Now what?
Even if Trump is gone, the underlying roots of Trumpism will persist, entrenched into the base of the Republican Party. The stench of losing will be strong; there will be rounds of deserved "I told you so" recriminations from the GOP's savvier elites and intellectuals, the ones who saw Trump as the threat he was and refused to go along out of some misbegotten sense of party unity. There will be another autopsy that, like the one in 2012 that was so thoroughly disregarded, calls for increased minority outreach.
And, one would hope, there will be a price to pay for the spineless, cynical politicians and so-called religious leaders who stuck with Trump despite the pervasive mendacity, despite the repulsive attacks on Muslims and Hispanics, despite the allegations of sexual assault and the proud policy ignorance: Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, Pam Bondi and Ted Cruz, Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. and Orlando's own Paula White, to name just a few. Conversely, you'd hope that those who put country and principle ahead of party – e.g., John Kasich – would rise from the ashes to become the GOP's new vanguards.
But maybe not.
After all, even after Trump is gone, the roots of Trumpism will remain embedded in the Republican Party. He didn't win the primary by accident. He won because he tapped into an undercurrent of the ugliest elements of the American body politic: economic anxiety and discomfort with changing social mores, sure, but also racism, misogyny, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, authoritarianism, fear of the other. As the saying goes, when you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. And there's no denying that many of Trump's followers feel oppressed watching the country become more multicultural, multiethnic, urban and libertine.
That's what they mean when they say they want their country back.
Trump's enraged base comprises a little less than half of the Republican Party, enough to make it a viable force going forward. More concerning, Trump still has a favorable rating of about 35 percent – people who approve of him, not just those who hate Hillary so much that they're willing to put up with him. That's tens of millions of people – deplorables, if you will – who shrug at or even applaud race-baiting and conspiracy-mongering.
That's not a good sign for our democracy. I can't help but wonder whether a more politically sophisticated demagogue without Trump's baggage and diarrhea of the mouth (or of the tweet) would have prevailed, or whether the 2020 Republican primary will be a race to repudiate Trump or to galvanize his followers. I suspect a little of both – and I'm not sure who will win.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.