As his fellow Republicans deserted him one by one, Donald J. Trump put up the best fight he’s capable of at the second presidential debate in St. Louis on Sunday night. But it was nowhere close to good enough. Trump wasn’t convincing as a potential president. Nothing he said can erase the devastating impact of the video of his misogynistic comments revealed on Friday, and with his outrageous promise to jail his opponent he descended to another new low in American politics.
The debate started against the backdrop of an unprecedented revolt against Trump. After tolerating one outrage after another from their unconventional nominee, elected Republicans finally began abandoning Trump on Saturday and Sunday after seeing the tape of the nominee bragging about his sexual assaults against women. Some Republicans went a step further and called on Trump to drop out of the race.
The stress showed. Trump paced and stewed on stage, and whined at debate moderators, Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz. He repeated some of his outright lies from the first presidential debate, including his claim that he opposed the Iraq War before it started. He was clearly in over his head on discussions of taxes and foreign policy.
So, with little to lose, he unloaded all the venom that the right wing has been storing up for Hillary Clinton over three decades. He called her the devil. He said she belonged in jail. He revived a parade of old accusations against her husband. It’s the stuff that the talk-radio fringe has yearned for someone to throw at her all these years
Well, now someone has — and will have to suffer the backlash. Attacking Bill Clinton, who is not on the ballot, seemed especially bizarre. The connection, he seems to want voters to believe, is that she was an “enabler.” It’s convoluted and, to many people, downright backwards to blame a wife for a husband’s infidelity. And old allegations against someone who is not on the ballot certainly don’t constitute some kind of defense for the Republican nominee’s own admitted assaults.
Trump also created what will become headaches for him over the next few days. He broke with his running mate on Syria. And his threat to jail his opponent, should he win the election, represents such a violation of democratic norms that it ought to give the Republicans already fleeing his campaign another reason to bolt.
There are probably no magic words that Trump could have said that would have undone the damage he has inflicted on his campaign. If anything, Sunday’s debate will make it easier for his fellow Republicans to leave him to his fate.