The conventional wisdom coming out of Sunday night's presidential debate is that Republican Donald Trump performed well enough to stop the stampede of GOP officials who had dropped their support of him or outright called for him to leave the race after Friday's release of a recording in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women. The Republican Party probably won't now cut off support for his campaign, as some had been urging, and the likes of House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can probably maintain their nose-holding support for him.
But while they breathe sighs of relief that Mr. Trump didn't literally melt into a puddle on the stage, Republicans might want to actually listen to what their nominee said. Some of it may actually have been worse than the Access Hollywood tape. Republicans may have gotten over their terror (at least for the moment) of the damage a Trump candidacy is doing to their party, but they should have new reasons to worry what a Trump presidency would do to the GOP — not to mention the democracy.
The little dictator
The chants of "lock her up" at the Republican national convention were disturbing enough as an expression of the party base's id. But on Sunday night, Mr. Trump turned that into an action plan, promising a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server while secretary of state — though in Alice in Wonderland fashion, he made clear that's just a formality. "It's awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in this country," Ms. Clinton said, prompting Mr. Trump to retort: "Because you would be in jail."
Never mind FBI Director James Comey's repeated testimony that no reasonable prosecutor would file charges in a case like that surrounding Ms. Clinton's private email server. Prosecuting political enemies is the stuff of petty dictatorships, not the world's oldest democracy. Buzzfeed has helpfully compiled a list of dictators who have thrown their opponents in jail (Vladimir Putin of Russia, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Myanmar's military junta, Nicholas Maduro of Venezuela, etc.). But for a more local counter-example, consider the pressure many activists on the left placed on President Barack Obama to investigate alleged war crimes committed by the Bush administration. He refused to do so, even when the matter at hand was something as abhorrent to American values as torture.
When the candidates were asked what they would do about the unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Syrian city of Aleppo — a rebel stronghold under withering assault from the forces of Russia and Syrian President Bashar Assad — Mr. Trump expressed not the slightest bit of concern. Rather, he offered up the wildly inaccurate formulation, "Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS and Iran is killing ISIS." No, actually, Russia and the Syrian government are killing civilians by the thousands; their priority is not defeating ISIS but preserving the Assad regime. That's precisely the kind of wanton ignorance about foreign affairs that caused dozens of Republican national security experts to write a letter in August vowing not to support him. This was just another example in what they correctly diagnosed as his "alarming ignorance of basic facts of contemporary international politics," a penchant for complimenting adversaries and a brazen refusal to educate himself.
But from a partisan point of view, Republicans should be worried about the next part of his answer. Moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News followed up to remind Mr. Trump that at last week's vice presidential debate, his running mate, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, had given a very different answer, holding out the possibility that continued Russian airstrikes in conjunction with the Assad government might need to be met with American military force. "He and I haven't spoken, and I disagree," Mr. Trump said. If Mr. Trump would so blithely dismiss his own running mate, what do party leaders like Mr. Ryan think he would do to them if he became president?
During the debate, a Muslim woman in the audience, Gorbah Hameed, asked about the rise of Islamophobia in the United States. Mr. Trump replied that the increase in Islamophobia was "a shame," which is a bit like an arsonist lamenting the spread of fire. But then he pivoted into criticism of Muslims for supposedly failing to report intelligence about plans for terrorist attacks, including a claim that "in San Bernardino ... many people saw the bombs all over the apartment of the two people that killed 14 and wounded many, many people. Horribly wounded, they will never be the same. Muslims have to report the problems when they see them." That is simply not true. The Los Angeles Times (among others) has clearly documented the lack of any evidence for what Mr. Trump has said. Fact-checkers debunked it as far back as January. Mr. Trump has a habit of repeating inflammatory things he "heard somewhere" or that "lots of people" are telling him, or maybe that he made up out of whole cloth. It's irresponsible when a candidate does it. It's dangerous when a president does.
'Just words' or sexual assault?
The main reason many viewers tuned in to Sunday's debate was to see whether Mr. Trump would express real contrition about the despicably vulgar and sexually predatory things he said to Access Hollywood host Billy Bush in the 2005 video that was released on Friday. True to form, he did not really apologize; in fact, his initial response to a question about the "mature audiences" nature of the campaign, to quote audience member Patrice Brock, did not address the issue at all. Instead, he rambled about Obamacare, Iran, the trade deficit, respect for law enforcement and making America great again. Moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN pressed him about the tape, noting that what he described as "locker room banter" was in fact a boast about committing sexual assault. Mr. Trump then started talking about ISIS, dismissing his words as "one of those things." Mr. Cooper had to follow up three more times to get Mr. Trump to say that he had not actually done what he bragged about on the tape.
No presidential candidate should have to be given three chances to deny that he made a practice of kissing and groping women whenever he pleased.
Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele aptly summed up Mr. Trump's night when he tweeted out a picture of a mushroom cloud with the message, "GOP at this moment." If there were any Republicans who hoped after the Access Hollywood tape that Mr. Trump might just go away, they were surely disabused of the notion when he invited reporters to a hotel conference room, supposedly to watch final debate preparations, but in actuality to attend a news conference with three women who claim they were sexually harassed or assaulted by Bill Clinton decades ago. A fourth woman, who was the victim in a rape case in which Hillary Clinton represented the defendant, also attended. According to the Washington Post, the Trump campaign tried to seat three of them in his family box, an arrangement that would have caused them to enter the auditorium at the same time as Mr. Clinton. "We had it all set," former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani told the Post. "We wanted to have them shake hands with Bill, to see if Bill would shake hands with them." The Post reported that the scheme was personally approved by Mr. Trump but that Frank J. Fahrenkopf, the debate commission's co-chairman and a former Republican National Committee chairman, found out and put a stop to it.
After the first debate, Mr. Trump said he considered bringing up Mr. Clinton's past infidelities but held back because Chelsea Clinton was in the audience. It is now clear that nothing will hold him back, that there is no stunt he will not pull to drag the ugliest presidential race in memory deeper into the gutter.
In a conference call with Republican members of Congress, Mr. Ryan on Monday said he would not defend Mr. Trump, would not campaign with him and would instead focus on maintaining the GOP's House majority, Politico reported. But Mr. Trump's performance Sunday demonstrated that for Republicans, pretending he doesn't exist simply is not possible. If he loses, as many Republican officials are now all but conceding, he will go back to his old life. But the Grand Old Party will be facing the consequences of this campaign for years to come.
An earlier version misstated how many women claimed they were sexually harassed or assaulted by Bill Clinton decades ago. The Sun regrets the error.