Trump Goes to War

As the campaign descends into chaos, the Republican nominee lashes out in all directions, consequences be damned.

Mike Segar / Retuers

OCALA, Florida—In Donald Trump's war of all against all, none shall be spared.

"I'm so angry at the Republicans," he says, eyes slitted in a mocking grimace. He's riffing off the leaked email that shows that allies of Hillary Clinton gave her a question in advance of a town hall broadcast by CNN in March. "I want to be fed information like Hillary gets," he complains, jabbing with his right forefinger. "The Republicans are not doing their job!"

The people are not sure how to react to this: Some laugh, others cheer, others boo. There are thousands of people here, sitting on bleachers and standing on the floor of a dirt-floored livestock arena, clad in a vast array of creative T-shirts. ("Deplorable Lives Matter," "She Wants the D," "Bomb the Shit out of ISIS," "We're Going to Need a Bigger Basket," "9/11 Was an Inside Job.")

"The leaders," Trump complains, are "not putting their weight behind the people." He had, in his view, won the last presidential debate, and yet the House speaker, Paul Ryan, had not called to congratulate him. "Wouldn't you think maybe Paul Ryan would call and say, 'Good going'?" Trump asks. "You'd think they would say, 'Good going, Don! Let's beat this crook! She's a crook! Let's beat her, we've got to stop it!’ No, he doesn't do that."

Boooo. The air is warm, the humidity so thick it feels soft, like a damp fleece blanket. Far from here, out in reality, the whole flimsy Trump edifice is crashing down. His predatory boasts have come to light; the women he has preyed upon, realizing they are not alone, are coming out of the woodwork. The other Republicans on the ballot, trapped like doomed deer in oncoming headlights, are frozen between fleeing in terror or continuing to insist that Clinton is even worse, that bad people can do good things, that Trump remains a gamble worth taking.

The Republicans appeased Trump, thinking that placating him would stave off chaos. But the chaos came anyway, and now it has taken over.

"I always figure things out, folks," Trump says. "There's a whole sinister deal going on."

As the campaign enters its gruesome, death-rattle phase—yes, there are three and a half more weeks of this to endure—Trump is refusing to go down without a fight. He intends to drag them all with him if he can, down into the swirling chaos. Scary clowns have been popping up all over the country, and somehow this does not seem like a coincidence.

This, this massive crowd in a giant barn in the middle of Florida, amid a landscape dotted with auto-body shops and one-story houses and dripping with Spanish moss, is all Trump has left: his ravening hordes, the throngs that still flock to see him, impervious to the "reality" the crooked media portrays. The media, after all, is just an extension of the Clinton campaign, as Trump contends the emails conclusively reveal.

He has, too, his traveling circus, the shrinking crew of political castoffs still willing to sing his praises, starting with Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, who tells the crowd, "We're going to win! We're going to win Florida!" Giuliani says of the emails, "Don't they prove everything we ever thought about her was true? Now it's in writing, and all those conspiracy theories turn out to be correct!" Indeed, the emails have revealed a Clinton apparatus that is cozy with the media, unrepentantly globalist, and cravenly two-faced, just as her opponents contended.

Giuliani also says, of September 11, "I was there that day, and I don't remember seeing Hillary Clinton that day," even though she never claimed to have been there, and the two of them toured the site together shortly afterward. (He later apologized.) But you can say whatever you want to this crowd and they'll believe you, because they don't believe anyone who tells them otherwise.

And Trump has the Republican Party he has taken hostage and refused to relinquish. "I am a member of Congress and I support Donald Trump," Representative Daniel Webster tells the crowd defiantly. Another local congressman, Ted Yoho, says he's not condoning or making excuses for things Trump said "11 years ago in a locker room," as if it were actually a locker room—it was on a bus—but he insists Trump has apologized and Clinton is worse.

Men like Webster and Yoho owe their positions to knowing how to satisfy this crowd, and it's not with high-minded appeals to laissez-faire economics.

So the meteor barrels toward the earth. It's common to refer to a campaign in freefall as an "implosion," but really, this is an explosion, throwing shrapnel in all directions, immolating innocent bystanders. Trump has cast off the shackles of the bosses who tried to rein him in. He is determined to consume the ungrateful party that, having nominated him, now is having second thoughts. As an advertisement paid for by the campaign recently put it: "IT'S US AGAINST THE WORLD."

Mike Segar / Reuters

A man in the crowd has written in big letters on the margins of his Trump-Pence placard, “GRAB THEM IN THE PAUL RYAN." A vendor is selling unauthorized signs that say, "Don't be a Pussy, VOTE FOR TRUMP," and people are buying them.

Trump, on the stage, his meaty face shining in the dull light, looks over the sea of faces as the chant of "Lock her up!" gains momentum and becomes a consuming roar. "We're not going to be the stupid people anymore!" Trump cries, and the crowd erupts in cheers.

The Republicans who saw it coming regard the unfolding disaster with a mix of smugness and despair. The "Never-Trumpers" point back to the warnings they issued long ago, unable to much relish being proven right.

Reid Ribble, a Republican representative from Wisconsin who is not seeking reelection, was the first sitting member of Congress to say he would never vote for Trump. "It's going to get worse," he told me, after the debate but before Wednesday's avalanche of sexual-assault accusations. "He's true to the character he has shown during the entire campaign."

Ribble is close to Ryan, the House speaker, whose wrestling with the Trump dilemma has been a running Hamlet act. Trump's brash populism couldn't be more antithetical to Ryan's boy-scout demeanor and supply-side gospel. He has made it clear he strongly disapproves of Trump and criticized Trump's behavior, yet he feels duty-bound to support his party's nominee. On Monday, Ryan held a conference call with the rest of the Republican House members, telling them they had to do what was right for their constituents and announcing he would not campaign with Trump.

The campaign has been an ordeal for Ryan, as it has been for many professional Republicans. On the call, some members from strongly Republican districts attacked Ryan for not being more supportive, even as many anti-Trumpers view his endorsement as a craven capitulation. The meltdown at the top of the ticket has gotten so bad that some forecasters think the Republicans' 59-seat majority, one of the largest in history, could be erased.

Ribble defended his friend when I asked if Ryan should rescind his endorsement. "I never endorsed [Trump], so I'm that guy that thinks everybody should," he said. "But I think Paul is trying to find the best way to navigate this for the 247 House Republicans. He's taking the most pragmatic view he can. He's not going to defend the indefensible." Ribble hasn't made up his mind but is leaning toward voting for the independent candidate Evan McMullin.

Though he's leaving Congress, Ribble frets about his party's future. "I think this presidential race has done great damage to the conservative movement," he said. He believes the populist wing of the party represented by Trump is no more than 20 or 25 percent under normal circumstances, and shouldn't be allowed to "hijack" the GOP. "I'm not a moral relativist—I think there are real boundaries about how we should live our lives and conduct ourselves," he said. "This wing is saying, 'No, there aren't.'"

For the Republicans who capitulated to Trump, the best-case scenario was a genteel defeat. Instead, they got the worst case: the party burned down from within, its own voters cheering the fire. Like so many of those who have gone into business with Trump, they trusted him to hold up his end of the bargain, only to find themselves stuck with a bill he refuses to pay.

"I resigned myself long ago to the fact that this was going to be a disaster," Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist who has worked for the party's Senate committee, told me a few days ago. "But there's no real gratification in having it confirmed in the most obvious and predictable way."

Donovan has taken to reposting on Twitter a National Review commentary from May wherein he argued that Trump could never win a general election. ("The Archie Bunker routine that succeeded among a subset of the Right is precisely what put him in his current hole," Donovan wrote back then. "It turns out that what revs the GOP engine is repellent to everyone else.")

"It's been a dark six months," Donovan said, but Trump's increasing personal toxicity combined with his jihad against the party that nominated him could still get worse. "That's the scary part," he said, noting that Trump had tweeted over the weekend that he wanted the politicians pulling back from him to lose their elections.

Trump probably doesn't know he's going to lose, Donovan said, but "he's laying the narrative preemptively to place the blame after this goes down"—to pin it on the traitors in the Republican establishment who fled the sinking ship like so many rats. Based on primary votes, "14 million people are at least susceptible to this argument," he added. "Is he going to spend the next 20-some days dragging everybody down with him? So there's a lot of looking into the abyss."

None of Trump's presentations are driven by polling or strategy, particularly now that he's cast off any pretense of politeness. "His instincts are what they are. He always goes back to the same well," Donovan said. "The message he's putting out is doubling down on the underlying sentiment of his whole candidacy: us against the elites, redemption for people who feel ignored. People like Paul Ryan are keeping you down." Pure resentment with no veneer. Trumpism distilled to its essence.

But like children picking sides in an acrimonious divorce, the Trump hordes know where their loyalty lies, and it's with Daddy. They lash out angrily at Trump's critics and thrill to his call to rain down consequences on the disloyal.

Keith Easter, a 72-year-old dentist who lives in Hernando, tells me he has just sent an email to all of his contacts listing all the Republicans who don't support Trump and urging them to "drop all support for them and go another way." Easter says, "These people are either fearful or misinformed or self-absorbed. We don't need 'em."

Mike Segar / Reuters

Easter has not forgiven Ted Cruz, whom he once donated to. "He and the others have alienated themselves from me and a good part of the United States," he says. "They're history. They're has-beens. They need to get out of the way."

Jerry Brown, a 67-year-old retired truck mechanic from Hawthorne, Florida, says, "The media is just against him, trying to make him look bad." Of Ryan and the Republicans repudiating Trump, he adds, "These wimps deserve to lose their jobs. They're running scared because they can't face the truth."

"He's a man, OK?" says Brown's friend Kim Cady, a 54-year-old housekeeper who wears her gray-brown hair feathered around her face. "Men are going to grab and grope. Somebody with that much money can grab your butt, big whoop. He didn't rape anybody or have extramarital affairs." Her favorite part of the last debate was when Trump told Clinton she would be in jail if he was president.

They do not believe the polls. A lot of things are new about this election, but the denial feels very familiar—it's the same bunkered insistence that had Mitt Romney convinced he was winning, against far less conclusive evidence, four years ago. "I don't listen to the polls. They're all biased," says Rick Johnson, 56, an electrician semi-retired on disability. "Look at the number of people coming to the rallies! This is a big majority of Americans!"

The world is a horror show, they tell me: ISIS taking over the Middle East, Syrians and Mexicans invading America, socialism on the march thanks to President Obama, and a trail of dead bodies in Clinton's sordid past, from the 1990s to Benghazi. Next to that, what are a few personal indiscretions, a nasty word here and there?

"The Republicans not standing behind Trump are not fit to shine his shoes," says Gail Stickle, 67, whose bright blonde hair is pinned atop her head, a gauzy red-white-and-blue scarf around her neck. "I totally supported the Bush family. Now I'm sick of them. They're career politicians. They don't care about our country, they only care about their jobs."

These are Trump's people. They are all he has left. They are sticking with him to the bitter end, and maybe after that, in the conflagration that envelops the Republican Party.

Sharon Day, the co-chairman of the Republican National Committee, takes the stage before Trump and tells the crowd to ignore the establishment's judgment. "The Republican national party is you!" she says. "It's every Republican across the country! Mr. Trump talks to us—he gets us!" And they answer her with a roar that echoes in the humid pavilion.