Trump's Vile Game of Distraction

Second presidential debate wasn't a bloodbath, but there's still one coming – not at the hands of Hillary Clinton but rather Donald Trump himself

Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump at second presidential debate in St. Louis on October 9th. Credit: Getty

Given the potential for a conservative civil war, the second presidential debate of 2016 feels almost like an afterthought already, and we should not fail to recognize the man who made it so.

Maybe the fact that the debate was nearly the same drubbing as the first has something to do with its immediate sense of transience. Without Donald Trump setting an all-time record for comprehensive failure in a debate, this debate might not have dropped like a rushed sophomore album. On its own, it would have charted sky-high, but, well, you already heard this material.

Hillary Clinton again came off better factually, but this is America, where trees cause air pollution and 1977's Community Reinvestment Act caused the 2008 Great Recession. Clinton came off temperamentally better, too; then again, back in 2000, the dry-drunk scion of a Connecticut banking clan, who bought a Major League Baseball team, became "the guy you could have a beer with."

It will be easy for TV analysts to focus on a few things. Trump loomed behind Clinton as she gave an answer. He whined that Clinton and the moderators made it "three against one" and appeared to agree with the New York Times report that he hasn't paid federal income tax for several years. His response to questions about his talking about assaulting a woman by "[grabbing] her pussy" would have been embarrassing even by the expectations you'd have for a middle manager of a mid-tier office supply company. If he wins, he vows to jail Hillary Clinton, another authoritarian stroke from a candidate whose preference for epaulette-free suits is about the only thing standing between him and the title "Generalissimo" anymore.

All these moments are fodder for very earnest discussions about temperament, optics, misogyny and disdain for the political process, and all of them can and will be automatically absorbed or cast off by followers depending on their voting allegiances. You could probably gin up the compensatory rationalizations yourself now. Lol, as the anhedonic Twitterati refrain goes, nothing matters.

But what should matter very much is what happens now that Donald Trump has taken the Republican Party's beautiful dream of a permanent Christian ethnocentric oligarchy in his hands and snapped it into little pieces.

Judging from the Beltway thinkspeak merry-go-round on 24-hour media, Trump "won" this debate by triumphing over expectations set lower than the final resting place of the Titanic. By sounding like every World Net Daily or Breitbart op-ed indexed under the "Clinton" tag, he staunched the hemorrhaging of his base, a rump of conservatism too small to win the general election anyway, and potentially not enough for the rest of the party.

As it stands, the RNC and Trump are bound by a joint fundraising agreement. When the presidential nominee is a loyal party man, this agreement is a no-brainer. Money goes where it's needed, and the party as a whole benefits. But Donald Trump, already the antithesis of a party man, won't be around after 2016. He's barely here already. The Republican Party, on the other hand, would very much like to be.

If the party believes Trump's declining numbers and increasing unpalatability will exert downward pressure on Senate and House races, it has no reason to maintain this agreement. Already, the Trump campaign's disinclination to hire more organizers on the state level – Clinton has a 5-to-1 ground game advantage – forces the party to share financial and human resources. He's already hamstrung the party on an organizational level; further alienating voters only jeopardizes the House and Senate majorities, insult upon existing injury.

This would not be a smooth transition. Trump and his surrogates have already shown every inclination to depict the 40-some-odd Republicans who have unendorsed him as establishment careerists ready to betray an authentic populist movement. A formal party action would be interpreted as an official declaration of war. That Trump's response would be to rend the party to hide his responsibility for an inevitable electoral humiliation seems all but certain.

And if the rest of Republican Party seems like it's now ready to clean house, that gives them far too much credit. At even a moment's glance, the Trump unendorsers appear every bit as bankrupt and vile as their antagonist.

Plenty of columnists have already highlighted how nauseating the GOP's moral calculus has been. Donald Trump was tolerable when he depicted Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers. He was fine when he proposed shredding the First Amendment to restrict Muslims from entering the country. He was fine insulting POWs and the parents of a soldier killed in action. He was fine when he mocked the disabled and when he framed womanhood as its own disability. He was fine with his history of racist housing discrimination, and he was even fine early Friday afternoon, when he reasserted the guilt of the Central Park 5 – all minorities, all exonerated by DNA evidence.

But later that afternoon, it turned out that he went after white women – apparently literally, with his hands. He went after people who vote for Republicans in numbers. Suddenly, after 17 months, there were real victims involved. The imminent GOP crack-up seemed like all it needed was someone to give it a big push.

Clinton saw a couple of opportunities last night to try to put Trump away on the subject of his groping comments and how they fit within his global capacity for being abhorrent. That she didn't pounce on them could reflect an understanding of just how easy it is to incite male-voter backlash by having a woman attack a man on the subject of what constitutes acceptable male behavior. (Perhaps she also realized that any specific attacks on male conduct would arm critics with specific terms they could use to describe her husband.)

On the other hand, Clinton has also repeatedly displayed an atavistic dedication to Beltway niceties and compromises that no longer exist, a view trapped in the amber of the first Clinton presidency. At a glance, that seemed to be the animating principle behind her campaign's quashing of its previous message that Donald Trump represented not a deviation from but the culmination of decades of Republican Party policy.

By decoupling Trump and the GOP, Clinton aides insisted that down-ballot Democratic candidates could still wed their opponents to Trump and, anyway, Trump would be all over TV. It was a nice idea, apart from it not working in practice. One, most people pay attention to presidential elections first, if not almost exclusively. Two, if presenting people with two hypocritical sets of data about their representatives effected political change, The Daily Show would have ushered in full social democracy somewhere in between Jon Stewart's mugging and his Jerry Lewis impression.

Instead, Clinton hung back, both in the debate and as a matter of campaign policy. And while Clintonistas will doubtless view this as a sort of three-dimensional chess, that interpretation distorts Occam's razor into some mutant eight-blade job from Gillette. It takes a lot of "if... and then if... and then if..." to hope that not lashing a party to a volatile nominee will see them not only excuse him endlessly but move closer – until an oppo video proves galvanic enough that they reject him in the most tone-deaf manner possible and threaten to pitch into open internecine warfare, depressing turnout and letting the down-ballot contests fall to the Democrats.

No, if there was a key to last night – if there is a key to any of this beshitted 17-month march downward into an American politics indistinguishable from a drunk used car salesman screaming about homos and wetbacks and ragheads in between declaring his intention to fingerbang the bartender – it was Donald Trump. You can wait for Trump to hang himself only because, if you give him long enough, he'll weave the rope from his hair. He is a special man.

High school textbooks aside, historical change is rarely the exclusive province of great men, but if you want to see the Republican Party begin to devour itself, you can point to our republic's foremost Nietzschean Untermensch. The picture to take away from last night didn't happen in the debate at all. It wasn't Trump towering behind Clinton like a pit boss about to snap some fingers if she didn't let go of the mic. It wasn't the town hall audience glowering or scoffing in response. It was a table full of victims of sexual assault.

In one of the most nauseating bait-and-switches in recent memory, the Trump campaign invited the press to come in and see some last minute "debate prep." Instead, what they found was Trump seated at a table with Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Kathy Shelton – three women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault, and one whose rapist was represented in court by Hillary Clinton.

Ordinarily, a rich and powerful man amplifying the anguish of powerless women who claimed to have been raped by another extremely powerful man would be a noble gesture. Out of context and devoid of sound, it would have been a silent, stunning reminder that Bill Clinton would be nearly unthinkable as a Democratic candidate today.

Instead, Trump sat and listened with his mechanical nod and his smug pursed lips, presiding over the proceedings with all the humanity of a Dementor – as if moments away from crunching up a pair of Tic Tacs and sucking the remaining broken pieces of their souls out of their mouths, growing engorged and powerful before the electorate on decades of compounded misery.

And, up until Friday afternoon, the Republican Party would have applauded him for it. A tut-tut here and there, maybe, to invoke Beltway pieties that the party itself long abandoned in any form but lip service – but privately it would have been greeted with crushing high-fives for its sheer balls.

Except, this time, it was done to distract from the very real possibility that the Republican Party nominee for President of the United States is a sex offender. That, and only that, was enough to arrest the endless forward movement of a party happy to glide on racism, religious discrimination, misogyny and xenophobia – profitably and seemingly forever.

Give credit where it is due. There is no debate prep or long-view strategy that can conjure that kind of monstrosity. 

Here are the most WTF moments from the second presidential debate in St. Louis. Watch here.