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What Should Republicans Do Next?

We assess the wreckage of the Republican Party

Sunday night’s debate has already been enshrined in memes and conventional wisdom. Yes, we’re going to see a spike in sales of red half-zip sweaters. Yes, Donald Trump’s entire defense of his own bad behavior is “but Bill Clinton.” Yes, Hillary Clinton is pitching character more than competence. But what (if anything) about the debate will have a real impact? Jamil Smith, our senior national correspondent, and Ana Marie Cox, our senior political correspondent, lay out the lasting lessons of Sunday night.

Cox: I was relieved to see that many pundits picked up on, and denounced, Trump’s promise to put Clinton in jail if he were elected. In a season that has seen almost unthinkable depths of attack and rhetoric, this line was the most despicable — antithetical to civil liberties, democracy, and the rule of law. Trump betrayed not just ignorance about the legal system but contempt for it. And it can’t be dismissed as a joke or an aside; after the debate, the Trump campaign released meme-ified versions of the quote that telegraphed the earnestness of his promise. We know Trump is a Putin stan, but to put away your political enemies on the basis of personal vendetta, without benefit of a trial or a charge, is some Stalin shit.

Moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz, who were the best so far, failed the public badly in not following up on the remark. They could have connected it to Trump’s insistence on the guilt of the Central Park Five, for instance — another incident in which he has completely disregarded both the results of the judicial process and that process’s very existence. He isn’t running for president; he’s running for judge, jury, and executioner.

Smith: Exactly! Trump, not Clinton, recently chose to put the Central Park Five back into the news, issuing a statement to CNN declaring that they are indeed guilty of the rape and assault of a white jogger, despite DNA evidence pointing to another culprit. After the debate, Trump’s chief sycophant, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, told BuzzFeed that Trump has a “pretty solid basis” for believing in their guilt, which is rubbish.

For the life of me, I do not understand why Clinton doesn’t hammer Trump for the Central Park Five ad he published in 1989, condemning five innocent teenagers of color before he knew anything about the case, and issuing a call for more police freedom to search, humiliate, and brutalize citizens with tactics like stop-and-frisk. The racist attack Trump launched against those five children is one he’s continuing now that they’ve been exonerated as grown men, and highlighting this could be the single most effective way to destroy his case for being the “law and order” candidate.

During the second debate, Clinton listed people to whom Trump owes apologies for his statements during the campaign: the Khan family, Judge Curiel, New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, President Obama. I was on the edge of my seat waiting for her to punctuate that list with “and the five young men in New York City who you still say are guilty and deserve to die” — but she left it unmentioned. It was part of a long list of ways black people and their concerns were either erased or merely made to fade into the background, hidden in vague comments about “inner cities.” The evening was a total failure for identity politics.

Cox: Lol you say “his case for being the ‘law and order’ candidate” as though by “law and order” Trump actually means “law and order.” What he means is “white supremacy.” It’s another of his not-really dog-whistles. His continuing persecution of the Central Park Five helps make the case that he’s the white supremacy candidate.

Not that he needs any more help, but it’s actually my fear that if there is video or audio of him using the n-word — as is rumored — it might actually give him a bump in the polls. I mean, right now we have a bunch of white Republicans (a.k.a. #AsAFathers) all up in arms about his boasting about preying on white women, but those same Republican un-endorsers said nothing about his talk of, you know, killing the young black men of the Central Park Five. (Have to give props to John McCain, by the way, for listing the CPF remarks in his statement on un-endorsing; he was the only candidate to do so.) I really do worry that if Trump successfully refocuses his bigotry and implicit violence on people of color, that might shore up the support of those who reject his targeting of white women.

Indeed, this debate has apparently “stopped the bleeding” — according to pundits. Some wavering Republicans have been satisfied by his not-totally-disastrous performance:

And here’s the thing: I think that’s great for Clinton. I think the GOP completely rejecting Trump could allow them to hold on to some threatened House and Senate seats and even preserve some of the party’s dignity. Clinton’s strategy, and the strategy for all decent humans, should be to hold Republicans responsible for Trump. You break it, you buy it.

Smith: The lack of responsibility in the Republican Party for Trump is only superseded by their opportunism. Recent defectors aren’t running from Trump because he suddenly became unacceptable to them. It’s because a new NBC News poll giving Clinton a 14-point lead in a two-way race indicates that Trump is empirically unelectable. I feel like Adrian Balboa is shouting from the top of the steps, “You can’t win!” Except, this time, she’s right.

One thing I have enjoyed about this convenient reversal by Republicans is how it has exposed House Speaker Paul Ryan as a chump. He’s been held up as some sort of serious thinker when in reality his policies are just as ridiculous as Trump’s fly-by-night platform. Ryan doesn’t call a press conference or distribute a bold public statement about distancing himself from Trump. He doesn’t even address the media at all. Instead, he goes on a conference call and tells his party members that he is “only campaigning for House seats and promoting our agenda,” and that he will no longer defend Trump. In doing so, Ryan isn’t setting himself up to be a bold standard-bearer of the party, bucking the racist fringe that elevated their nominee and perhaps putting himself in line for a 2020 nomination. No, he’s more likely to become the next John Boehner, a so-called “honest conservative” who is driven out of his party’s leadership. At least Boehner seemingly got out with his principles intact. Like every other endorser, Ryan will never rid himself of the Trump stink.

Cox: In the end, the GOP establishment’s unwillingness to hold themselves accountable for Trump will be their undoing. The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one, as they say, and no one in the GOP realizes the problem is Trump-ism, not Trump. And Trump-ism is a direct outgrowth of the party’s directions and decisions over the past 40 years.

It’ll take more than knowledge of wrongdoing to clean up this mess, though. It’ll take something along the lines of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Maybe just for the GOP; maybe for the whole country.

Smith: That would assume that the Republican Party would be interested in either truth or reconciliation. This is a generational problem for them that won’t die off when Trump loses in a month. The voters they’ve cultivated through generations of cultural stigmatization — the Southern Strategy after the Civil Rights Act, bigoted immigration stances, “tough on crime,” etc. — will not hand their party back to them after a stinging defeat. Hell, they may not even recognize defeat; I doubt sincerely we’ll see Trump, or them, concede on the night of November 8.

Trump is more than a Breitbart comment thread made flesh, roaming around the debate stage like the serial predator he boasted about being. He’s a manifestation of the Republican id, and even men like Rove don’t want to admit that they’ve lost control of him and those who support him. That would require accountability and humility, two other qualities this Republican Party lacks.

There will be no come-to-Jesus moment, even if they lose the presidency again along with both houses of Congress. They won’t understand why they lose elections until they’re willing to grapple with their own faults. More than losing its soul, the party lost its conscience 50 years ago, when they realized the dwindling power of their ideas required pimping bigotry to voters — especially those willing to vote against their own economic self-interest. If they don’t account for Trump and how they let this charlatan play them, they’ll never get the White House back. The best hope for the party is that younger Republicans understand the mess their political fathers and mothers have left for them and figure out how to make conservative arguments without being assholes. I still have faith that’s possible.