Accusations of betrayal. Demagoguery and hatred. The bunker in Berlin. Comparisons with Adolf Hitler have been tempting throughout Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for the presidency – never more so than at its mad, destructive climax.
The Republican’s presidential bid appears to have become the campaign equivalent of the last days of the reich, when Germany’s leadership raged at bearers of bad news from the battlefield, ordered non-existent divisions to launch counteroffensives, and embraced a nihilistic plan to burn it all down and take everyone along.
The difference is, unlike then, there seems to be little awareness of impending defeat or understanding of how it came to be. Instead, attitudes are like those after the first world war when Germans on the far right coined a word for their myth of betrayal: Dolchstoßlegende.
Trump is trailing Hillary Clinton badly in national polls, sometimes by double digits. Jubilant Democrats are eyeing so-called “red states” such as Georgia and Utah and expanding their ambitions to take both the Senate and House. The Trump campaign has yanked advertising and staff out of Virginia, and major donors are pulling the plug. The writing seems to be on the wall of polling firms, campaign offices and newsrooms across the country.
“So is this presidential election over?” asked Michael Barone, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “Almost certainly.”
In September, Trump appeared competitive. In October, he collapsed. A 2005 video in which he bragged about groping women was followed by a slew of allegations of sexual assault and more than 160 Republican leaders who abandoned Trump. He has declared war on members of his own party, attacking the House speaker, Paul Ryan, and turned to increasingly authoritarian claims, insisting that Clinton must be jailed.
Republicans have started to fear that 8 November will not be the end but rather the beginning of all-out civil war, asking whether Trumpism can survive Trump, and whether those who support him can survive his candidacy. Who can unify the party of Abraham Lincoln? Who can avoid a historic fourth consecutive defeat in the election of 2020?
Much depends on whether 2016 has an effect on the Senate, where Democrats stand a strong chance of taking control, and on the House, which may now be in play. The maverick businessman has already threatened to dispute the election’s result, claiming the election is rigged, and already lashed out at moderate Republicans for not backing him.
“No one knows what’s going to be left of the party on November 9,” said Charlie Sykes, an influential conservative radio talkshow host. “Republican officials I’ve talked to have gone beyond anger to a sense of anguish about the future of the party,” he said.
“The damage that Trump has done will not end on November 8. I don’t think any Republicans really know what a post-Trump party looks like. They’re hoping it’s a one-off event but I don’t see the civil war going away any time soon.”
Sykes, who has known Ryan since he was first elected to the House in 1998, regards the 46-year-old Wisconsin Catholic, a family man and devotee of Ayn Rand, as its intellectual leader. “If there’s anybody who ought to emerge as the titular leader of the party in the ruins, it will be Paul Ryan.”
After the defeat of Mitt Romney – a harsh critic of Trump and Ryan’s 2012 running mate – Republican officials produced an “autopsy report” concluding that to win back the White House, the party needed to appeal to young voters, women and minorities.
“They did the precise opposite,” Sykes said, noting how Trump had alienated those precise constituencies. “They’ve got to get grips with the fact that if you want to be a national party you cannot win elections if you do not appeal to women, African Americans and Hispanics and young people.”
Instead, Trump’s rallies are dominated by largely white crowdswho have embraced his angry, anti-immigrant rhetoric. “The Trump campaign is premised on turning out a part of the American population that’s shrinking,” said Lanhee Chen, policy director for the Romney presidential campaign.
“For the party to succeed, it needs to focus on the part of the population that’s actually growing. I think that challenge is one that can be addressed post-election in very short order.”
But that shrinking population is not going quietly. The hard core of Trump’s support remains defiant and vociferous and now feels under siege. At a rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, this week, his supporters were fuelled by disdain towards a party establishment that they saw as trying to drag their candidate down.
“They are scared because he is going to stop the bullshit,” said a man who declined to give his last name but said he was called Scott, and had traveled from Aurora, Indiana. He called Ryan “a spineless moron” and defended Trump. “Hillary’s pulling shit that people have been put in prison for years for,” he said. “Trump kisses some woman on the cheek 30 years ago and Paul Ryan says, ‘I’m not going to support him any more. I’m not going to defend him anymore.’ He didn’t want to defend him from day one.”
Anna Rigdon, wearing a shirt saying, “Trump Pence: fuck your feelings”, expressed similar thoughts. She thought politicians who had backed away from Trump “should be ashamed” and singled out Ryan and “the Bush family” in particular.
If Trump loses, Rigdon said, “I think it is Paul Ryan’s fault and the other Republicans who are not standing by Donald Trump.” She added that in Ohio’s contested Senate race, she would not vote for the incumbent Republican, Rob Portman, who recently withdrew his endorsement of Trump.
Invariably, Trump supporters rejected surveys that show the Republican nominee facing a catastrophic loss. Linda Hernandez, a middle-aged Hispanic woman wearing a “Deplorables for Trump” shirt, said: “I don’t believe the polls. I believe that the liberal media is controlling everyone’s minds.”
The danger for the Republicans is that, should Trump lose, voters who have not believed the polls and the media will conclude that the party itself betrayed them. Instead of learning lessons, party members fear, Trump’s supports will believe they were stabbed in the back, as Trump has insinuated at rallies.
At least three factions of the party will struggle for control: ideologues led by Ryan, an establishment embodied by former presidents George HW and George W Bush (neither of whom endorsed Trump), and a so-called “Breitbart wing”, led by Steve Bannon of the rightwing news network, now chief executive of the Trump campaign.
“It’ll be a war,” said Rick Tyler, a political analyst and former spokesperson for the primary runner-up, Ted Cruz. “The Breitbart wing is going to try to impose its will on the party and its brand of Republicanism, which is win at all costs without a guiding philosophy. The establishment is well funded but represents the status quo. The conservatives are underfunded and underrepresented and lack a leader to convince Americans why it’s a winning strategy and philosophy.”
Tyler cited Ryan, Mike Pence, the Indiana governor who is Trump’s running mate, and Tom Cotton, a senator from Arkansas, as potential leaders. But he noted: “Ronald Reagan was not obvious. They emerge. They’re not obvious, so I don’t know who they are. You won’t know who they are until they come forward. As we saw with Winston Churchill, great leaders emerge in times of great turmoil.”
He also struck a rare optimistic note. “It’s an exciting time to be a Republican. With turmoil there’s also opportunity. The party could work on a new brand and a new set of leaders.”
Others, however, saw no future in Trump’s destructive wake. Asked where the Republican party should go from here, Tom Tancredo, a former Republican congressman from Colorado, replied: “To hell. At least I hope so. If they do go south, the demise of the Republican party is the only good thing that can come of it. It has no relevance philosophically and so it deserves to go.”
Tancredo, the head of the Team America political action committee, likened the scenario to the 2004 disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow. “We have to think about the day after the election and what should we do as conservatives. The major problem trying to have a movement take hold in America is a lack of leader. You have to have someone who can articulate their concerns and inspire people.
“I haven’t the foggiest ideas who that may be. I guess they’re yet to be discovered because I can’t name one. I would have said Cruz but he self-destructed plus he’s not charismatic. You need a Reagan.”
For the conservative blogger Erick Erickson, the key is rediscovering the party’s moral compass after many defended the indefensible in Trump. “Most important, the Republican party must recommit to a basic principle – character counts,” he wrote in the New York Times on Friday.
There could be light at the end of the tunnel. Clinton, herself deeply unpopular, will be trying to defy political gravity if she runs for a fourth successive Democratic presidential term in 2020. Republicans could also learn from Democrats in 1992 who, after three losses, reinvented themselves and swept back into power with Bill Clinton.
The Republican pollster Frank Luntz saw another historical parallel. “I am expecting a Republican insurrection similar to what happened to the Democrats after George McGovern lost in 1972,” he said. “Every component of the GOP will be at war with each other. There will be an attempt to unseat Paul Ryan as speaker. You’ll hear ‘I told you so’ from Ted Cruz and John Kasich.
“The House, which will still be controlled by Republicans, will be at war with the Senate – which is truly up for grabs. It will be nasty, ugly and very personal. Far more effort will be spent blaming each other than trying to pull together.”
Still, Luntz said that Republicans would survive just as Democrats did in the 1970s. “They always do.”
But part of the reckoning may have to be a realisation that Trump’s hostile takeover did not occur in a vacuum. Critics have argued that he merely said, in a crude and explicit way, what many rightwing Republicans have been saying for years in code resulting in racially charged anger, obstruction in Congress and cancer in the body politic.
Barack Obama, now at the end of his term, recently articulated the idea to New York Magazine. “I see a straight line from the announcement of Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential nominee [in 2008] to what we see today in Donald Trump, the emergence of the Freedom Caucus, the Tea Party, and the shift in the center of gravity for the Republican party,” he said.
“Whether that changes, I think, will depend in part on the outcome of this election, but it’s also going to depend on the degree of self-reflection inside the Republican party. There have been at least a couple of other times that I’ve said confidently that the fever is going to have to break, but it just seems to get worse.”