Twenty four hours prior to Sunday’s presidential debate, the Republican Party stood at a fork in the road. They could either disavow their presidential candidate, who was exposed on Friday gleefully boasting about sexual assault in a leaked tape from 2005, or they could stand by him, thereby normalizing his behavior.
A handful of GOP elected officials, many facing tough reelection battles, chose the former path. Among them were Senators John McCain, Kelly Ayotte and Rob Portman, all of whom rescinded support of their party’s nominee. Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan, GOP chairman Reince Priebus, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Trump’s own running mate, Mike Pence, condemned Trump’s remarks but held off on pulling their endorsements, opting to wait until after Sunday’s debate to decide.
They were rewarded for their patience. On Sunday night, Donald Trump repeatedly dismissed his celebration of sexual assault as “locker room talk,” called for the jailing of his political opponent, broke sharply with his running mate by appearing to side with the murderous, autocratic regimes of Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian conflict — and improved markedly over his first debate performance, by all accounts. A CNN poll showed that he beat most people’s expectations, although he still lost the debate.
And that was enough for GOP leaders. On Monday, Mike Pence went on the morning shows and reaffirmed his support for Donald Trump, calling his service as Trump’s running mate the “greatest honor of my life” and denying reports that he had considered abandoning the ticket. Paul Ryan said he would no longer defend Trump, but made it clear that he was still endorsing the nominee. In short, that he would continue to support that which he could not defend. Reince Priebus tweeted in support of Trump’s debate performance, and declared on Monday afternoon that “nothing has changed in terms of our support of the nominee.” Ted Cruz blamed the devastating fallout from the leak of the 2005 video on the mainstream media.
After the events of Friday and Saturday, Republican officials feared that Donald Trump had finally crossed the line — that they would be forced to abandon their nominee, forfeit the presidential election and alienate Trump’s rabid base of supporters, perhaps permanently. Having disrespected prisoners of war and people of color, ruthlessly mocked a disabled reporter and defamed Muslims and Mexican immigrants, it seemed Trump had finally offended a demographic that actually matters to the Republican Party. And no, it wasn’t just white women, nor women writ large — it was everyone with a soul, or so much as a meager scrap of basic human dignity.
On Sunday night, those same Republican officials breathed a rancid sigh of relief. Clinton may have won, and she may have opened up an overwhelming lead in the polls. But their candidate, Donald Trump — serial liar, harasser of women, monger of hate — had beaten expectations. They could go on supporting him after all.
Groves is a government sophomore from Dallas. Follow him on Twitter @samgroves.