Trump Vanquished His Rivals for the GOP's Soul

He lost the debate to Clinton, but defeated Ryan and McConnell.

Strategy and psychology in sync.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

There are two possible explanations for Donald Trump's debate performance Sunday night. The first is that it was one of Trump's regular releases of bile, albeit a high-volume one.

As Bloomberg Politics reported, after a weekend spent reeling from scandal and a flood of Republican defections, Trump unleashed "a spectacle of defiance with a hovering presence, as well as threats and interruptions that will likely do more to mobilize his devoted base than appeal to skeptical female voters he needs to win the White House."

It's true that the most unpopular presidential candidate in the history of polling did little in the debate to make himself more likable, and much to frighten voters who are not already in his camp. It was a greatest-hits compilation of every unhinged fantasy from Trump's damaged psyche.  

But the second explanation for his performance is that his rage festival managed to be both cathartic and strategic. Because Trump's psyche looks remarkably like a psychographic map of the Republican base.

Trump was shaky as the debate began, standing behind his chair in the opening moments as he sought a barrier to protect him from the onslaught. Clinton, however, failed to pounce. (I find notions that she intentionally held back in order to keep her damaged opponent from collapsing wrongheaded. The collapse of Trump would ensure her victory. A damaged, raging Trump is highly unlikely to prevail. But it's not impossible. Clinton played it safe because that's what she does.)

Her restraint allowed Trump to build up confidence and regenerate the vitriol that powers his performances. He has shown the capacity to regulate himself, at least partially, when absolutely necessary. At the second debate, though, he pushed beyond even the distant boundaries he had observed in the past. In his most frightening attack, Trump promised to jail Hillary Clinton. If the justice system and the political system exonerated Clinton of wrongdoing, then both must be swept aside in favor of a purer form of vengeance: Trump's dictatorial prerogatives.

This was not the way to go if Trump wants to defeat Clinton. But what if he -- and more importantly his ambitious campaign chief, Steve Bannon, who was photographed smiling at the pre-debate event with women accusing Bill Clinton of assault -- are willing to take longer odds on winning the 2016 election in order to have better odds on retaining control of the GOP base?

The base hates the party leadership, which has never shown the willingness to act on the ugly propaganda, including birtherism, that the leadership once found so amusing and beneficial. (Here it is 2016, and Obama hasn't even been impeached!) Did Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell not hear the chants of "Lock her up" at Trump's convention in Cleveland? Did they not see the mob demanding so much more than it has been given?

Trump's debate performance assured the base that he intends to realize its darkest fantasies This will keep him securely at the top of the ticket for 2016. GOP leaders cannot afford to cut Trump loose. His voters will go with him.

It also means that Trump can keep the base after the election.

Republicans have been the Party of No throughout Obama's presidency. Trump is transforming the GOP into the Party of "Lock her up." How will Republican legislators in Congress react to a base that believes President Clinton committed high crimes before stealing a presidential election? Who but Trump will control a base that has advanced from cheering Paul Ryan in 2012 to booing him last weekend? Trump has his own media coterie now -- Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Breitbart -- to help him cow the party establishment. 

There has been speculation that Trump and Bannon are working on a business plan to cash in on the GOP base after the election. But they are now in the business of politics, and the Republican Party is both their mark and market. If Trump was debating Clinton on Sunday night, he surely lost. But Trump and Bannon may well have been debating Ryan and McConnell, not Clinton.

November is a short horizon. There is money -- and much more -- to be made from the GOP's soul. It's now clearer than ever that Trump and Bannon intend to own it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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