For months, we have been waiting for Donald Trump to implode. No matter how grotesque his claims, no matter how tone-deaf his behavior, his sheer gassiness has kept Trump aloft.
But maybe, finally, his bizarre attempts to use the massacre in Orlando for his own cynical purposes have crossed a line. A terrorist attack was supposed to be good for Trump, but this turned out to be a domestic hate crime. Trump so bungled his response, got so consumed by his own narcissism, that voters got to see which candidate was the better president in a crisis—and it wasn’t Trump.
Maybe, finally, Trump is over-exposed—his own worst enemy. Over-exposure is an occupational risk of media celebrities. Maybe, belatedly, we will get to see Trump crash and burn.
But what exactly would that mean?
Nobody—and I mean nobody—has a crystal ball when it comes to Trump. But here are four possible scenarios to ponder.
Republicans Throw Trump Under the Bus. More and more Republican leaders could conclude that Trump is toxic, not just for the country, but bad for their party. In coming weeks more GOP leaders could decline to support him. The awkward pose of polite distance could turn into a stampede—or to change the metaphor, ships deserting a sinking rat.
Key Republicans could decide that it’s better for Trump to lose big in 2016, and then to regroup, take back their party, and try to make big gains in the 2018 midterm House and Senate elections, when the party of a newly elected president (Clinton) normally suffers losses.
This scenario would produce a carnival GOP convention, more significant for which Republicans don’t show up, and a blowout win for Hillary Clinton—more on that shortly.
Trump Decides This Isn’t Fun Anymore. The man is such a narcissist that as he becomes more and more a figure of ridicule, Trump could decide to walk away.
He could do this before, or after, the Republican National Convention. This is a long shot, but with Trump you never know.
If more Republican elected officials conclude that he is poison, then Trump’s hard-core support dwindles to maybe 30 percent of the electorate, and he stands to suffer one of the worst election loses in American history. Rather than suffer that humiliation, he could decide that this stunt was fun while it lasted and go back to (un)reality TV.
What then? Well, actually, trouble for the Democrats.
The Republican National Committee would meet. The RNC is far more mainstream and pragmatic that the Trump camp, and would select a candidate with appeal in the general election. Compared to Trump, that nominee would seem moderate (even though moderate Republican nowadays means far right but not psychotic. Thank you, Donald Trump, for that low bar.)
Likely picks: Paul Ryan or John Kasich—far tougher opponents for Clinton to beat. OK, it probably won’t happen, but with Trump anything can happen.
Trump Gets Lucky. This would require one or more improbable surprises: Bernie Sanders going away mad and taking lots of his supporters with him. A worse than expected Clinton email revelation, some new bombshell from the Clinton Foundation, Bill way off the reservation, or a major, real terror attack.
Even so, given how badly Trump has bungled the campaign so far, everything would have to break just right for this to be a cliffhanger election.
Hillary Wins Big. This is increasingly likely. In national polls Trump is now far behind other recently losing Republican presidential candidates at this stage of the campaign—and sinking.
If Hillary Clinton wins really big, Democrats will take back both the Senate and the House. But then her troubles begin.
The Republican leaders—Mitch McConnell in the Senate and Paul Ryan in the House—having distanced themselves from Trump, will not treat Clinton’s win as any sort of mandate. They will seek to block her at every turn, just as they blocked Barack Obama.
None of the national security crises that helped give Trump his moment in the sun will go away. Nor will the lousy economic conditions facing regular Americans that powered the appeal of both Sanders and Trump.
Clinton will need to be highly strategic about what she can accomplish by legislative action (not much) and by the use of executive power (some good things) if she is to avoid the fates that befell both her husband in 1994 and Barack Obama in 2010, when both suffered landslide losses in their first midterm elections and lost Congress to the Republicans.
For starters, she should avoid Bill’s 1994 mistake of carrying water for Wall Street at the expense of Democrats in Congress, when Bill Clinton spent huge amounts of limited political capital to ram NAFTA through Congress on mainly Republican votes. And she should avoid Obama’s 2010 mistake of listening to the fiscal hawks and declaring the economy in recovery when it desperately needed a second stimulus package being promoted by congressional Democrats. In other words: Govern as a progressive.
These are not easy challenges. But compared to a Trump presidency, or even a Ryan or Kasich presidency, they are ones Democrats can live with.