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Donald Trump’s Meltdown Is Nearly Complete

His debate performance was disastrous because he succeeded at the only thing he came to accomplish: to pander to his demoralized supporters.

Scott Olson / Getty Images

Since he launched his presidential campaign over a year ago, Donald Trump’s overarching strategy has been unchanged: win by subjecting his opponents to abuse and humiliation. On Sunday night, that strategy changed to subjecting Hillary Clinton to as much humiliation as possible on his way to defeat.

Rattled by the disclosure of audio and video footage of himself bragging about sexually assaulting women with impunity, Trump launched a ceaseless and unhinged series of attacks on Clinton, both on the debate stage and off.

Prior to the debate, Trump hosted a previously unannounced press event with Bill Clinton accusers Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and Juanita Broaddrick. The stunt was so craven and vulgar, it repulsed members of his own entourage, who up until Sunday were happy to play “what about Bill?!” whenever a new instance of Trump’s misogyny surfaced in the campaign. In the end, Trump placed Jones et al in the audience, while New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, one of Trump’s closest advisers, declined to attend at all.

During the debate, Trump followed suit, berating Clinton for her husband’s infidelities, and calling her “the devil.” He promised that if he’s president of the United States, he would instruct his attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton’s email practices, and, in the fashion of a junta leader, that under his administration she’d “be in jail.”

Had Clinton given a similar performance, commentators would describe it as a meltdown, and if Trump’s campaign wasn’t already melting down, they might say it about him.

But Trump’s campaign is melting down. At one point he castigated his own running mate, Mike Pence, for serving up ad hoc Syria policy at the vice presidential debate last week: “He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree.” To preserve any semblance of political livelihood, Trump came prepared to pander to his core, demoralized supporters and motivate them through the final stretch of the campaign. That Trump is the GOP nominee is a testament to the fact that he knows how to fire up the conservative base better than anyone else in the party. But for a party desperate to break ranks with him—to avoid being dragged down with him—his performance was disastrous precisely because Trump succeeded at the only thing he came to accomplish.

There is a codependent psychology that explains the connection between the horrifying skeletons in Trump’s closet and the loyalty of his core supporters, a mutually destructive symbiosis that impels Trump to inflict more and more of this kind of damage on himself without worrying about chasing away his base.

The emergence of the “grab them by the pussy” video, and the way Trump has responded to it, is part of a striking pattern.

There is a story roiling under the surface of this campaign, suggesting that there exists further outtake, b-roll, and other unaired NBC footage of Trump from his years hosting The Apprentice, saying things that contain even less ambiguity than the tape that has upended this campaign.

A couple months ago, amid a prior, raging discussion of Trump’s racism and lack of impulse control, I made gentleman’s bets with friends and fellow journalists about this basic point. Specifically, I bet that at some point during his 40 years in public life, someone, somewhere must have captured audio or video of Trump using the N-word.

Well, there is now a great deal of high-level, informed speculation that such footage exists.

Perhaps it doesn’t exist, or it exists but will never be disclosed. But my supposition that such a disclosure is likely was rooted in a few personal and professional experiences. I grew up in a part of California where Trump’s politics and his particular kind of persona are very popular. I’ve also met and interviewed enough wealthy, entitled egomaniacs (though none quite as brash as Trump) to know how unvarnished they can be in certain circumstances: in small, intimate settings where everyone is loyal, or larger ones where everyone’s subordinate to them—like, for instance, the set of The Apprentice.

The odds that a racist person like Trump, someone who clearly holds black people and other minorities in deep contempt, hasn’t used that slur, or other similarly unacceptable pejoratives, has always struck me as very low. It reflects how he feels, and he just as clearly sees it as his earned right to say whatever he wants, others’ feelings be damned.

When that right is infringed upon by public opprobrium, as it has been repeatedly during the course of this campaign, Trump feels compelled to reassert it. Trump’s supporters like him for many reasons, but one is that they admire and find validation in the projected sense that past a certain level of power and success, you can be liberated from cultural constraints. Take the mask off and behave like a boor without fear of reprisal. Be unafraid.

With all we know about Trump, and all we know about why he commands such loyalty, it’d be out of character for Trump to have been conscientious, disciplined, intimidated enough to have never used the term in a public setting. That’s why the footage that surfaced Friday, while grotesque, was ultimately unsurprising. By the same token, it would’ve been out of character for him to behave contritely on Sunday night, as the leaders of his party were no doubt praying he would.

If further footage exists, it won’t reflect a momentary loss of self-possession on Trump’s part. It will be part of the greater karmic rendezvous with destiny he embarked toward when his campaign for the presidency began. With all the things—from “grab them by the pussy” to “you’d be in jail”—that he’s felt entitled to say, without consequence, his entire life. They will come to the fore only because Republicans nominated him to the presidency. And Republicans will be unable to claim innocence or feign surprise.