America has never seen a stranger presidential debate than the town hall that took place in St. Louis Sunday night.
Don't buy the spin (or the expressions of jittery relief from Republicans) for a second: Trump didn't "win." He didn't transform himself into a new, improved, and appealing candidate. On that stage, Trump was very much himself: a know-nothing demagogue who does one thing very well, which is channel and amplify the ill-informed, maniacal rage of one faction of his party.
When a party is functioning well, the passions of individual factions get subsumed into and sublimated by the institution as a whole. But in order to function, the party's leadership and its factions need to speak the same language and understand themselves to agree on certain core ideals, strategies, and tactics.
None of this is true about the GOP today. No, the GOP is burning to the ground, and Donald Trump is fanning the flames.
From the moment he launched his campaign for president, Donald Trump demonstrated that he did unmodulated, contemptuous fury better than any of his 16 opponents. Our immigration policy was a disaster, he said. As was ObamaCare. And the Iran deal. And the Iraq War. And the economy. And our conduct of the war on terror. Complete disasters, all of them. Pathetic.
To those members of the party whose view of the world has been shaped for more than 20 years by rabblerousers on talk radio and cable news, Trump sounded like a long-awaited savior. Finally someone to tear it all down — the Democrats, yes, but also the Republicans who run the party.
Back in 1968, George Wallace ran a populist kamikaze campaign not entirely dissimilar to Trump's. He championed the grievances of members of the Democratic Party who dissented from its social liberalism and embrace of the civil rights movement. But he did this as a third-party candidate. Trump is doing something similar — channeling the rage of voters who feel disrespected and ignored by the Republican leadership — from within the Republican Party itself. This is a problem.
Trump is destroying the GOP in order to rebuild it in his own image and the image of the angry faction he now leads — and there's nothing the party's leadership can do about it. They endorse him and he humiliates them. They denounce him and he doubles down. They beg, implore, plead with him: Please stop insulting people. Please apologize and show contrition for bragging about sexual assault in the most vulgar terms possible. Please don't go after your opponent by humiliating her for her husband's behavior.
Please stop behaving like a tabloid sleaze-monger and start acting like a president.
Trump's response? He holds a press conference with Bill Clinton's accusers before the start of the debate, seats them in the hall with his own family, and injects them into the debate itself. He declares that if he wins the election, he would throw his opponent in jail. He praises Vladimir Putin right after he's asked a question about credible evidence that the Russian government hacked the servers of the Democratic National Committee in an effort to interfere with the presidential election. He stands by Syria's Bashar al-Assad right after he's asked a question about the ongoing bloodbath in Aleppo. He asserts, apropos of nothing in particular, that Hillary Clinton "has tremendous hate in her heart." He throws his own running mate under the bus for daring to speak critically of Putin.
And of course, he spoke of disasters, disasters everywhere: the economy, ObamaCare, Syria, ISIS, Libya, NAFTA. He spewed lies and blatantly misleading exaggerations. The performance was at once sordid and cartoonish in its extremism. The Trump faction of the GOP must have been thrilled.
But a faction is not a party, and a faction isn't capable of winning a national election.
Donald Trump has destroyed the GOP. It will be up to those who come after his ill-fated reign of devastation to figure out how to put it back together again.