In her legendary hit Me and Bobby McGee, Janis Joplin sang “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” If that’s true, Donald Trump is free to conduct himself as he pleases at tonight’s second presidential debate in St. Louis. Judging by the support that seems to be crumbling all around him, he’s got nothing left to lose. Might as well let ‘er rip and go for broke.
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Of course, we don’t know whether Trump has decided to adopt a scorched earth policy and to attack Hillary Clinton with all the viciousness that he can muster, as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie are reportedly telling him, or whether he will accede to the professionals’ insistence that the only way for him to get back in the race is to assume the more sober and responsible pose that gave him a short-lived lead in the polls a few weeks go. What is obvious to him, and to his advisers, is that the tape released by The Washington Post on Friday has wounded his campaign, critically if not fatally. Like a cornered and injured animal, Trump’s basic instinct is to lash out blindly.
Trump is being abandoned by an ever-increasing number of Republican figures, up to 150 according to a Sunday morning tally in The New York Times. The list of defectors includes both moderate Republicans, who didn’t like Trump in the first place, as well as die-hard conservatives whose voters like Trump immensely. Hours before the debate, Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee joined the list, asking Trump to step aside and let his vice presidential pick Mike Pence take his place, saying he would otherwise vote for a write-in candidate.
With the stakes so high, literally do or die for Trump, the debate at Washington University promises to be the Greatest Show on Earth. Originally it was given only second billing to the first debate two weeks ago at Hofstra University in New York, especially after Clinton won handily, but the tape recording storm has cast the debate as a blockbuster of similar proportions. When the debates were first set up, Trump’s people complained that they had been scheduled at the same time as National Football League matches, but now it’s the NFL that should be worried about football fans wandering off to the more brutal match being played out in in St. Louis.
Clinton has hitherto refrained from speaking out about Trump’s obscene and predatory remarks about women, captured on a tape recording of the Access Hollywood Network. She has preferred to follow the principle of “enough rope” and to allow Trump to flail as he tried to extricate himself from the meltdown of his campaign. But she will step into the limelight now and most probably slam Trump in the strongest terms, hoping to capture the rage expressed in recent days by female voters, who didn’t like Trump in the first place. Clinton has also prepared her defense if Trump makes good on his emerging tactic of retaliating by attacking the sexual misdeeds of her husband, Bill Clinton.
Although political specialists doubt whether such an assault will work in Trump’s favor – quite the opposite, many assume – the Republican candidate seems hell bent on drawing blood from his adversary as well. Trump is nonetheless torn between two contradictory objectives: If he launches a full frontal assault on Clinton and drags her into the mud with him, he may encourage his dispirited fans but he might also be seen as perpetuating the kind of angry, women-hating macho image that the recording strengthened in the first place. Political observers believe that ganging up on Clinton for her husband’s infidelities will anger undecided female voters and do nothing to stop the hemorrhaging of Republicans dissociating themselves from their party’s candidate.
If Trump seems contrite and apologizes, he could very well achieve those goals, though he runs the risk of upsetting his die-hard fans who view the recent controversy as yet another satanic scheme concocted by Clinton and her cohorts. That would seem to be the responsible course for Trump, but it would be out of character and he wouldn’t derive the same kind of personal satisfaction from it. His late mentor Roy Cohn, Manhattan lawyer and former aide to disgraced Senator Joe McCarthy, taught Trump to never say he’s sorry, and if someone hits him, to hit back ten times harder. It’s worked for Trump throughout the campaign, and it’s hard to see why he should stop now.