Donald Trump is in serious trouble with his own party heading into the crucial town hall debate against Hillary Clinton on Sunday night. Not because he denies climate change, threatens to nuke half the world, won’t share his finances, most likely didn’t pay taxes for 20 years, stiffed hundreds of employees, offers a safe haven to the Ku Klux Klan or worships a dictator like Vladimir Putin—or because of the numerous instances of sexism, racism and crude behavior. Nope, none of that was enough to make almost a dozen members of the Republican Party unendorse him and call for his resignation. Donald Trump is in trouble because he got caught saying, in one extended rant, everything he’s been saying for the last 18 months.
On Friday night, an October surprise popped up into the national election, the likes of which no one expected but everyone could have anticipated. Through myriad pathways and backdoors, a 2005 audiotape was released by the Washington Post that featured Trump saying vulgar, sexist and violent things about women to interviewer Billy Bush during a segment on Access Hollywood. The tape features Trump bragging about chasing after a married woman, his attempts to win her over by buying her furniture, his lack of self-control around women he finds “beautiful” and his penchant for treating the objects of his attraction like “bitches.”
However, the biggest takeaway was the following quote:
You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the [p—sy]. You can do anything.
The resulting firestorm from the tape has been unprecedented. A presidential candidate openly bragging about sexually assaulting women is a new low, and the encouragement he receives from the other “boys on the bus,” especially Bush teeing up Trump to get a hug from the object of their objectification, is textbook #RapeCulture.
The pundits have been beside themselves trying to figure out what kind of language to use to describe the tape, let alone talk about it. Often the conversations vacillate between the sophomoric crudeness of his words and the horrifying reality that a man with these attitudes could get this close to the White House. I’ll admit, I haven’t heard the word “p—sy” used this often in a public place since Marcus took Strangé to dinner. In the end, however, it’s the future of the Republican Party and tonight’s debate that will change the future of American politics.
The town hall debate is arguably the toughest and most revealing of all presidential debates because it requires the candidates not simply to go after each other but to answer the questions of “regular people” who are in the audience. It’s partially a sham—you can tell by the questions that very few of these voters are undecided (wait for the “Secretary Clinton, are you 100 percent or only 85 percent guilty for the deaths of our soldiers in Benghazi?” question). However, this time, with Trump’s tape coming out less than 48 hours before the debate, mixed with his dissatisfying response, he will inevitably be asked about what he said and what he meant. Unfortunately for Trump, history up to now points to a candidate who lacks the discipline and empathy to come up with a suitable response. If he fails spectacularly, the split in the Republican Party will continue, which brings us to the reaction of leadership in the last 48 hours.
Some have argued that GOP leaders like Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan were perfectly willing to tolerate Trump’s bigotry, but once he was caught on tape impugning white women, he crossed a line. That’s not quite what is going on here. Trump has insulted white women this entire campaign—Megyn Kelly, Rosie O’Donnell, Mika Brzezinski—and it never made a difference to GOP leadership, let alone to voters. The catch is that Trump was caught on tape stating that he sexually assaults white women, which activates a certain level of white male masculinity that calls for protecting a white woman’s purity.
That’s why all of a sudden you hear GOP leaders saying, “That could be my daughter [wife, etc.],” even while half of them don’t know the name of the woman referred to in the video (her name is Nancy O’Dell). You see, in a certain segment of toxic male culture, you can insult women all you want, but if you assault women, those very same men come caping to the rescue so long as the woman is white.
Which brings us back to tonight’s debate. It will be the most watched debate in American history, and there is arguably no way Trump can win. Perhaps if Clinton doesn’t show up and Trump rescues the entire studio from an electrical fire started by a malfunctioning Prius, maybe. Other than that, he’s losing. So the question isn’t about strategy tonight but the way in which Americans and the American press respond to a man who without a doubt has proved himself to be, at minimum, so undisciplined with his language when he was 60 years old that he could be a danger to national security.
The heads of state of Germany, the United Kingdom and South Korea are all women, places where it might matter that the U.S. president doesn’t have a reputation as a rapist. Will the excuses for his behavior continue? Will Trump be graded on a curve so long as he doesn’t attack a questioner? Will public sentiment turn against Clinton if she appears too “cold”? We will find these things out tonight as well as the nature of America’s soul.
Trump is the GOP nominee and has every right to compete until Election Day, but any nation that can give hope or even entertain the prospect of electing a man who speaks the way Trump has, both publicly and now privately, has lost all semblance of moral legitimacy.
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Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.