The call to gather went out Sunday morning, arriving on cell phones before many of the pastors had left their congregations. These 23 men and three women, all members of Donald Trump’s evangelical advisory council, had long ago signed on to pray for his vision for the nation. But now a scandalous recording from Access Hollywood was threatening to blow up the prayer circle.
From California to Florida, members of the group joined a late-afternoon emergency conference call on Oct. 9 to ponder the ugly spectacle of a 59-year-old man boasting about trying to seduce a married woman, forcing himself on others and getting away with it all because he was “a star.” It had to be an awkward moment for the faithful: Trump was bragging about sexual assault. “Grab them by the p-ssy,” the Republican nominee for President, now 70, was heard saying. “You can do anything.”
Seeking guidance in Scripture, they found a Bible abounding in useful scoundrels. One participant on the call noted that Jesus had befriended tax collectors and sinners. Another invoked the Old Testament figure Nehemiah, who served a pagan king, Cyrus of Persia, but leveraged the relationship to accomplish the holy mission of rebuilding the ancient walls of Jerusalem. Even an imperfect ruler might be the means to a righteous end.
And so the panel overwhelmingly stuck with the sinner, according to four people on the call. It was Hillary Clinton, not Trump, who worried them. “Can anybody say she is morally superior to Donald Trump? I don’t think so,” said Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, days later. “This election is not about Donald Trump’s past, it is about America’s future.”
This cold calculation induced cringes among many of their fellow church leaders. The editors of Christianity Today, a leading voice of evangelicals founded by Billy Graham, weighed whether it would profit the movement to gain the world at the cost of its soul. “Trump has been, his whole adult life, an idolater,” the magazine intoned, “and a singularly unrepentant one.”
As the 2016 campaign moved into its final weeks, Trump had put the whole country on the rack alongside the Christian conservatives, stretching the sinews of American politics to the breaking point. While some voters were tugged toward the wincing sophistry of the conference call, a larger number pulled disgustedly into the ranks of #nevertrump. The candidate himself was consumed by petty grudges. The furor over the leaked recording seemed to liberate him. Free of the “shackles”–his own tweeted word–Trump reduced his campaign to a primal grunt.
It sounded, at times, like the last gasp of the angry white man. Trump threatened to throw his opponent in jail, bragged of avoiding income taxes and peddled an empty conspiracy theory about undocumented immigrants’ being given voter-registration cards. He insisted he was right to stoke the racial tensions of New York City during the Central Park jogger drama in the 1990s, refusing to accept the DNA proof that he had the case wrong. He promoted a fiction that Muslim friends of the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorists knew their plans but failed to alert authorities, and he injected a crude Russian propaganda effort into one of his rallies without a care about its inaccuracy. Another tape (it wasn’t easy keeping track) caught him agreeing as a radio shock jock labeled his daughter Ivanka “a piece of ass.” Having congratulated himself for keeping the first presidential debate slightly above the muck, in Round 2 he plunged into the wallow, deflecting attention from his own vulgarity by saddling Clinton with the alleged sexual sins of her husband and trying to seat Bill Clinton’s accusers in the front row.
Trump once said on the campaign trail that he would approve of torture as President, “even if it doesn’t work.” With four weeks left to Election Day, he seemed to be testing the proposition on the public. Unshackled, he flirted with unhinged and erased the emollient line between a campaign aimed at the base and one intended to debase.
While his followers reveled, his more reluctant allies squirmed. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Washington’s highest-ranking Republican, came within a whisker of withdrawing his endorsement of the party’s nominee, urged on by his wife, who marched for women’s rights while a student at Wellesley. Trump’s running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, considered quitting the ticket. Then, attempting a straddle, Pence released a stinging rebuke of Trump’s Access excesses before resuming his role as chief cheerleader. “I don’t find myself thinking a whole lot about party right now,” he said on Oct. 11.
But others could no longer stay silent. “Enough!” insisted former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, calling on Trump to withdraw. “Offensive and despicable,” declared Utah Governor Gary Herbert. “I cannot and will not vote for Donald Trump,” said Governor Robert Bentley of Alabama.
The Trump campaign, party insiders admit, could do irreparable damage to a generation of prospects by rendering them enablers. Rivals for the nomination, like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, had cozied up to him until they realized it was too late. Elected officials had hesitated to oppose him lest they rouse his army of pitchfork populists. Many of the leaders of the religious right repeatedly blessed a candidate who bats 0 for 3 on the biblical injunction to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly. Barring a last-minute surprise, Trump is on track to lose his race. The question now is whether he’ll destroy the party’s congressional majorities as well.
“It’s us against the world,” declared a digital ad from the Trump campaign on the morning after the debate. But it wasn’t clear whether his main foe in the final month would be Clinton or Republican officials. After his incendiary debate performance, he turned on Ryan and company with a gas can and lighter in hand. “Disloyal R’s are far more difficult than Crooked Hillary,” Trump tweeted of the fleeing Republicans. “They come at you from all sides. They don’t know how to win–I will teach them!” Almost immediately, his fans took up the chorus: Trump loyalists circulated a rumor that Establishment Republicans were behind the leak to the Washington Post of the disastrous tape. When protesters gathered outside the party’s white brick headquarters on Capitol Hill, the organizer turned out to be Trump’s Virginia campaign chairman. One sign waved at the RNC offices read, Better to grab a p-ssy than to be one.
And there was no reason to think that the GOP was done tearing itself apart. Purging the party of moderates has long been the dream of alt-right provocateurs like the gang at Breitbart News. With Breitbart chairman Stephen Bannon now in league with the rampaging Trump, the revolt may only be beginning. Election Day “could be the start of the real civil war,” warns Kevin Sheridan, a GOP consultant and former adviser to Ryan. “Not the end of it.”
A veteran party official who has watched the party go from conservative to crazy during Trump’s rise says the saddest part of the conflict is how predictable it was. “We have been warning the party that this was the likely outcome. You can’t fix what is at the core of a person’s character,” says the official, who opposed Trump from the beginning. “This is who he is. And now it’s who we as Republicans are, because we went along with it.”
The day after the nastiest presidential debate in modern memory, Trump traveled to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., for one of his trademark rallies. At events like this, Trump’s excesses are celebrated or forgiven, and his provocations are championed as bravery. In the year of the first female major-party nominee, T-shirts are emblazoned with vulgar words for the female anatomy. Vendors hawk Hillary for Prison buttons. The rhetoric is even more acidic. “She’s a murderer, she’s a liar. You name it, she’s done it,” says Neil McNamara, who drove from New York to join the thousands thronging the arena. Trump is happy to indulge their fever. “‘Lock her up’ is right!” Trump hollered from his podium as the crowd chanted a favorite refrain.
Trump’s stump speech is a sort of jazz riff, and one of his favorite themes involves reciting the lyrics of an old soul anthem, “The Snake,” a parable about the dangers of showing too much compassion to strangers. To the delight of his Wilkes-Barre audience, he wove it into this rally. “Oh shut up, silly woman,” Trump quoted. “You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.” Trump uses the tune to illustrate the dangers of welcoming Syrian refugees. But it can also be read as a rebuke to the GOP for letting Trump into the tent.
He hid nothing of himself as he stormed through the primaries; the man on the Access tape was entirely consistent with the crude and bullying Trump of last autumn and spring. He had long been a proud womanizer whose affairs have often made tabloid headlines–he frequently leaked the details himself–and he had no problem boasting about his manhood at a presidential debate. Could anyone truly be surprised that he privately bragged about groping strangers and trying to bed married women, and explained it away as “locker-room talk”?
Which is why the statements of outrage from fleeing Republicans struck Trump allies as entirely disingenuous. The tape was catalytic not because it showed a new Trump but because it made clear that the old Trump is the only Trump this election is going to see. (Trump’s initial response to the tape’s release was not a full-throated apology but a hedged “I apologize if anyone was offended.”) The Access tape snuffed the wan but cherished hopes of GOP mainstreamers that a more sober and responsible version of the candidate would emerge in the final act of the tragedy.
In this gerrymandered age, most elected Republicans hail from districts where victory is possible without the support of Muslims or Mexicans or African Americans or any of the other ethnic and cultural groups named by Trump as part of the nation’s problem. But the GOP cannot survive without white married women, who are reliable members of their coalition. Tagged by Democrats with waging a “war on women,” endangered Republicans heard in Trump’s lewd rhetoric an existential threat. Of all the candidate’s combustible comments, “clearly this one crossed a certain kind of a line,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “It smacked of a predatory aggressiveness.”
Certainly party leaders knew Trump had gone too far. On an Oct. 10 conference call, Ryan told House Republicans they were free to cut themselves loose from the nominee. GOP caucus campaign chief Greg Walden told lobbyists the same day that Trump could be a drag in every race around the country. They were in uncharted waters, he told the group, and it was every candidate for himself or herself. “You gotta do what’s best for you,” explained an aide to one Republican Congressman who withdrew his Trump endorsement. “Every member is going to have to make their own decision.”
So few truly competitive seats remain that there may not be enough for Democrats to retake the House in a single election cycle. And as of September, Republicans had some $65 million at the ready to defend vulnerable incumbents. But the Senate is another story. There, the Democrats need to flip just four of the 24 seats the GOP is defending this year if Clinton wins. In most of those contests, Democrats are pouring money into advertisements yoking the local Republican to Trump. The GOP’s Senate campaign arm urged its candidates to stay calm and wait a week until polls could measure the depth of Trump’s fall. But there is a danger in that wait-and-see approach, one party strategist noted: with early balloting under way in many states, voters are already sealing their decisions.
At the same time, the party must deal with the anger in Trump’s ranks. Ryan got an earful on his conference call from the congressional faction that wanted a full-throated defense of Trump. “Democrats, when attacked, become musk ox. They all rally together and stand there looking stubbornly out, refusing to move,” says former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a close ally of Trump’s. “Republicans, when there’s a large, loud noise, are sort of like deer who scatter. There are just different party cultures.”
Trump left no easy way out. Party boss Reince Priebus continued to nurse his uneasy alliance with the nominee, aware that the party’s fundraising and turnout operation both hinge on enthusiasm for the top of the ticket. Not that Trump was cooperating. According to one senior Trump adviser, enthusiasm is no longer a part of his strategy. He has largely given up on broadening the electorate. “We have no problems going deeper into the mud,” the adviser said. “A low-turnout election is better for us.”
For the Clinton campaign, the danger was premature gloating. The former Secretary of State, Senator and First Lady remains a wooden candidate whom many Americans say they don’t trust. Hackers, believed by U.S. intelligence experts to be linked to Vladimir Putin, have tapped the email accounts of top Clinton aides, and there’s no telling when the flow of stolen documents and embarrassing revelations will dry up. Indeed, were it not for the Trump meltdown, Clinton would have endured a rough week of her own. As the nation gawked at Trump’s crass words, Clinton’s own private admissions were laid bare by WikiLeaks’ release of a top adviser’s correspondence. Among the disclosures were partial transcripts of past paid speeches, which suggested that her public agenda deviated from her private opinions and revealed her dream of “a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders.” Her senior advisers have no choice but to bet that more–and maybe worse–is on its way.
And they know that Clinton is frequently her own worst enemy. Her penchant for secrecy fueled the scandal of her private email server and led her to hide a pneumonia diagnosis, only to stagger on camera while leaving a 9/11 memorial service. “Never underestimate Hillary Clinton’s ability to make this harder than it has to be,” one top Clinton aide says of the boss. She never takes the easy route. “If the path is from New York to Washington, D.C., it’s even odds that her trip will go through Utah.”
Democrats remain haunted by Trump’s unique resilience. In roughly a year’s time, he had attacked women, Muslims, minorities, POWs and the disabled, and, like the familiar old clown toy, bounced back each time he fell. “We’ve lived through too many incidents where things should have been extinction-level events for his campaign and did not materialize that way,” another top Clinton official muses. Even after the video exposed Trump’s crass comments, polls remain stubbornly close in several must-win states.
As his chances narrowed, Trump holed up inside his apartment on the 66th floor of his Manhattan tower. He spent much of the weekend alone, watching the tape loop on cable news and working the phones to solicit advice. Among the billionaire’s tight inner circle, some of the most influential figures are insurgents who have spent years more focused on tearing apart what is left of the Republican Party than on getting the GOP back to the White House.
One of them is Bannon, the Trump campaign’s CEO. The former Goldman Sachs banker and conservative filmmaker has waged a long, often lonely crusade against Republican leaders through his online news outlet Breitbart. Ryan has been a recurring target. “Long game is him gone by spring,” Bannon wrote last December to a Breitbart staffer, according to an email obtained by the newspaper The Hill.
It didn’t happen, but not for lack of trying: Breitbart campaigned relentlessly against Ryan, propping up his primary challenger. In one stunt that Breitbart covered breathlessly, Ryan’s challenger gathered a group of women whose children had been victims of criminals who were in the U.S. illegally to protest outside Ryan’s Wisconsin home, demanding he tear down the property’s fence if he would not support Trump’s border wall.
Bannon found a home with Trump through Robert and Rebekah Mercer, a father-daughter donor duo who have funneled tens of millions of dollars toward conservative causes, including efforts to defeat Establishment Republicans. After Trump’s tape went public, the Mercers were among the only voices to express no interest in his transgressions.”We are completely indifferent to Mr. Trump’s locker-room braggadocio,” the family said in a statement to the Washington Post. “America is finally fed up and disgusted with its political elite. Trump is channeling this disgust … We have a country to save and there is only one person can save it.” Trump is a powerful instrument for the Mercers’ shared campaign to create a purer Republican Party, even if he loses in a wipeout in November. Such a result might only hasten the transformation. “A Clinton presidency will drive the country further to the right,” explains Gingrich, architect of the last Republican revolution a generation ago.”It will make us angrier, more alienated.”
Trump is already laying the exculpatory groundwork for defeat. “Without the media, Hillary Clinton couldn’t be elected dogcatcher,” Trump told his Pennsylvania audience. For months he has claimed that the political system, along with national institutions that have gone unquestioned for decades–from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to the FBI–are rigged against him. That includes Republican leaders. “I wouldn’t want to be in a foxhole with a lot of these people,” he told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly on Oct. 11, “especially Ryan.”
It all points to a Republican civil war that is, if anything, just getting under way. “The fight you’re seeing now is a preview of what you’re going to see on steroids after the election,” says Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former adviser to Marco Rubio. “The real debate is about what the Republican Party represents and what its values are.” Bill Weld, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts who is now campaigning against Trump from his perch as the vice-presidential nominee on the Libertarian Party ticket, is even more direct. “There’s going to be a schism,” he says. Already Trump has torn apart the conservative movement. A generation of rising stars, such as Ryan and Rubio, may find their futures tainted by Trump–from their failure to enlist in his army, or perhaps from their failure to take up arms against him. Or both.
Religious conservatives, who for decades defined themselves as “values voters,” will now have to explain why they lined up behind a thrice-married playboy who once said he had never asked God for forgiveness. Samuel Rodriguez Jr., president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, says Trump has exposed the disconnect between evangelicals’ words and their political deeds. Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public-policy arm, says church leaders lost credibility when they cast their lot with Trump. “This has been traumatic for the Republic, and traumatic for the church,” says Moore, one of the top evangelicals to oppose Trump from the beginning. “It is going to take years and years and years to recover and rebuild.”
Perhaps most notable is how Trump’s antics have overshadowed the real arguments he brought to the table. With his tart tongue, Trump has exposed something real: a populist fury at the decades of bipartisan consensus for a more globalized world; frustration over 15 years of slow economic growth; impatience with an immigration system that depends, because of bureaucratic dysfunction, on ignoring or not enforcing written laws; a rejection of the government’s apparent helplessness in the face of conundrums like homegrown terrorism.
Win or lose, Trump’s rise has forced the Republican Party to rethink its identity in a way that hasn’t been done since the civil rights era. The GOP’s introspection after Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss will seem quaint by comparison. A report commissioned then by party bosses, dubbed the Autopsy, called for a gentler, more inclusive Republican Party that could expand its appeal beyond its aging white base. The suggestions were sensible. They were also dead on arrival long before Trump hit the scene.
Will a post-Trump GOP now turn back toward conservative orthodoxy? Or, egged on by alt-right news outlets and talk radio, fully embrace a new brand of populist nationalism? Trump is unlikely to recede from the spotlight. This campaign has cemented him as a star. GOP insiders from all points on the party’s ideological spectrum predict he may use his notoriety to launch a branded news outlet for his fervent fans.
Certainly those believers show no signs of abandoning him. After the tape’s release, crowds clogged the sidewalk outside his apartment, hoping to catch a glimpse of their under-fire candidate. As the cable networks continued the second day of wall-to-wall coverage, Trump put down the remote control and decided to face his supporters. Shortly before 5 p.m. he walked from the marbled lobby to greet the throng. The crowd went wild, shouting his name and waving signs. For five minutes Trump worked the crowd, smiling and thanking supporters. Then the Republican nominee hoisted his right fist into the air, clapped his hands and disappeared back inside his tower.
–With reporting by ELIZABETH DIAS, TESSA BERENSON and SAM FRIZELL/WASHINGTON; CHARLOTTE ALTER/NEW YORK and ZEKE J. MILLER/WILKES-BARRE, PA.
This appears in the October 24, 2016 issue of TIME.