Donald Trump’s chaotic campaign

David Shribman

Donald Trump’s decade-old lewd remarks, and his sexual braggadocio, on the set of “Access Hollywood” with host Billy Bush have thrown the presidential election into upheaval.

The video prompted Republican leaders to assess their options, created fresh unease among GOP congressional and gubernatorial candidates who have extended a tentative embrace to Trump and added new drama to Sunday night’s debate at Washington University in St. Louis.

That debate swiftly deteriorated into a he-said/she-said battle, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton questioning Trump’s fitness for office and Trump asserting that his rival deserved to be in jail. The two bickered over who was the bigger enemy of women. And they called each other liars.

The 2016 campaign has been unprecedented in the unpredictable forces it has unleashed, in the new frontiers of campaign comportment it has created, in the chaos it has sown in established party alignments, and the unease it has created among party leaders and voters.

One of the early casualties was in redefining the boundaries of acceptable campaign language.

Like the course of the campaign, the implications of this episode are impossible to predict. But Trump, whose debate preparations were disrupted by the furor over his remarks, faces possible erosion of support from members of several vital voter groups, not least of them women, whose support he struggled to win long before the release of this video.

Also at risk: Support from Republican candidates who were reluctant to back him in the first place; the GOP establishment, which has regarded him with fear and contempt and has in large measure withheld its support; religious conservatives who were troubled by his three marriages and now have reason to reassess their support; some late adherents to the Trump cause who supported the message while retaining their skepticism of the messenger.

Trump seems to have triumphed by showing, and occasionally amplifying, his contempt for the party that nominated him. He has also made a virtue of his miscues, an approach he reached for Friday evening when he acknowledged his faults but swiftly explained that his national campaign had rendered him a changed man, arguing that the remarks “don’t reflect who I am.”

That once again is at the center of a political campaign that a year ago seemed to be a referendum on his opponent. Since the beginning of the year, the campaign has instead largely been a referendum on Trump, and now more than ever the choice in November is over, as the candidate himself put it in the middle of his current crisis, “who I am.”

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.