After 17 long months, the presidential campaign has come to the last month, leaving behind a trail of sludge and shame that has embarrassed the USA. But, it's not all over yet. The formality of ballots and results are still to come. So, in the remaining 29 days, the Orange fireball (larger than today's explosion at the site of the former Exxon refinery in Torrance, CA) is going to play havoc with the Republican Party, and probably destroy it in the process. He will set the example for students of history and political science to point to. He is the go-to-guy for a political system run amok:
Deserted and detested, the GOP nominee feels free to tell people what he really thinks.
Democrats get a kick out of saying that Donald Trump is "unhinged," but the candidate views himself as finally being unchained.
It may seem odd that a 6-foot-2-inch id in a red power tie would feel like his biggest problem was some infringement on his freedom to express his innermost thoughts, but people close to the flailing GOP nominee say he's viewed the staggering setbacks over the past four days as license to loosen up, be himself, and wage a personal war against the unified forces of the liberal media and dying GOP establishment.
Venture onto the pro-Trump right-wing Breitbart website and a Trump-Pence ad pops up: "It's Us Against the World," it proclaims, but there's no Pence, just two Trumps — the glowering candidate and his image in a mirror.
"He hates all these guys, anyway, never liked kissing their butts, so he's inclined just to say good riddance," said a top Republican who has known Trump for years.
As his fortunes sour, anger is trumping cogent calculation, and his defiance appears to be increasing in proportion to his decline in the polls. As Republican support was eroding over the weekend, Trump's campaign worked together talking points for surrogates as part of a defiant effort to attack those lawmakers for bailing on him. After he tweeted Sunday that they're all pathetic, Newt Gingrich suggested after Sunday night's debate that they would regret jumping ship so quickly. Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway accused some defecting Republican lawmakers of being sexual harassers themselves.
On Monday, Katrina Pierson — an unwavering Trump TV warrior who wears a necklace made of bullets and seldom deviates from talking points — tweeted that she couldn't keep up with texts from friends vowing to vote only for Trump but not disloyal down-ballot Republicans.
And by Monday night, Trump iterated his anti-media script, indulging the crowd's hate for reporters by letting supporters scream for two minutes at the press penned into the venue.
By Tuesday morning, Trump wanted to make sure everyone knew he was ready to come out of his shell. "It is so nice that the shackles have been taken off me and I can now fight for America the way I want to," he tweeted.
"It's got to be liberating to see some of the baggage fall off the train," said Michael Caputo, a New York Republican operative and former Trump campaign staffer who has known the candidate for years. "A lot of the support was thin or disingenuous. None of these Republicans were even helping. In fact, some were breathing his name in fear for what it would do for their own reputations. It shows the true nature of the Republican Party."
Inside Trump Tower, the candidate's team is girding itself for more and possibly even more damaging opposition dumps. And there is consensus within the candidate's roguish inner circle of Steve Bannon, the Breitbart CEO who's long had House Speaker Paul Ryan in his cross hairs, and David Bossie, who spent decades attacking the Clintons, to fight fire —be it from the media, Democrats or from Ryan and fellow Republicans — with a blowtorch.
"He's picking fights because he does not like it when anyone questions him, whether it be Rick Perry in the primary, Susana Martinez in the primary, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan—he doesn't like when anyone questions him," said Austin Barbour, a GOP strategist in Mississippi. "He handles that very poorly, and that's what he's doing right now."
Trump spent the weekend in seclusion, bearing the brunt of nationwide criticism and watching Republicans desert him en masse, some withdrawing their endorsements and others calling for him to step aside after his lewd comments caught on video capped a two-week slide in the polls. He emerged to deliver a more pugilistic, no-holds-barred performance on the debate stage Sunday, with women who have accused Bill Clinton (who is not running for president) of sexual abuse or harassment.
But even scoring what many characterized as a base-settling win on Sunday night, Republicans and Democrats alike view Trump's quest for the White House as essentially lost — Monday morning's NBC poll showed Clinton opening up an 11-point lead over Trump in a four-way race.
Knowing it, he is now behaving like a lame-duck candidate, intent on settling scores, going after the Clintons with a vengeance and scorching vacillating establishment types who are (in Trump's view) knifing him to save their own corrupt hides. His campaign is expected to bring Bill Clinton's accusers onto the trail and sources close to the GOP nominee indicate that more sordid allegations about the Clintons' personal lives may be only days away.
"This campaign is going to be so terrible," Caputo acknowledged, "we're all going to smell like it for the next seven to eight years."
For Republicans, it's already far more terrible than imagined. The first returns from public and private polling taken over the past week show a massive drop-off in GOP down-ballot support, leading many strategists to concede the likelihood of a Democratic Senate and the long unthinkable possibility of also losing the House — a frightening realization that precipitated Ryan's distancing and the dozens of senators and members of Congress who pulled their endorsements over the weekend.
"Look at Paul Ryan today: He is acknowledging what we all know, the race for the White House is over," said Sarah Isgur Flores, a GOP operative who guided Carly Fiorina's presidential campaign. "Now, it's just a question of collateral damage. A lot of our Senate candidates were running well ahead of Trump, but that doesn't mean they can withstand a 15-point fallout."
Republicans worry not about whether Trump can make up ground but what additional damage he will do — especially with signs that Trump, far from concerning himself with collateral down-ballot damage, would be content to gloat over a lost House GOP majority he could blame on Ryan and others who abandoned him.
"Now that the reins are off with Trump and they do seem to be coming off, there's going to be more statements, maybe more videos for the next 29 days," Flores said. "At this point, most senior Republicans are looking to Nov. 9 to assess damage and figure out if there's a way to move forward."
But the crackup of the fragile coalition also gives Trump an excuse, someone to blame for his likely loss — even though it's more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than causal factor.
"No one can be surprised that Trump is doing things that are destructive for the party and that he only has himself to blame for it, for the state of his campaign and Republican chances," said Kevin Madden, a GOP operative in Washington. "But he's not going to take any of that blame. He's going to blame it on everybody else. But it's not because of this tape or anything Paul Ryan or the establishment or the RNC did or didn't do. It's because of his own actions. Many people predicted this, that he represented a systemic threat to the party and that's exactly what's played out."
Indeed, the establishment set of the GOP has already cast the blame.
"If he loses a presidential election that was so gob-smackingly winnable — if he loses to Hillary Clinton — it doesn't matter if he blames establishment Republicans or a cavalry charge of unicorns," said Michael Steel, a Republican strategist who worked for former Speaker John Boehner. "He will have lost to Hillary Clinton."
"Going into a presidential election, the moral authority and character of a political party is reflected by its nominee" - Maybelle Carter