It was an extraordinary message, delivered at a time of unparalleled political drama.

On Monday, Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, told his colleagues that he would no longer defend his party’s nominee for president, Donald Trump, and urged those running for re-election to do whatever necessary to save their own jobs. Mr. Ryan said he would focus his energy on maintaining a bulwark in Congress against a potential President Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Ryan’s remarks – which veered perilously close to conceding the race is over – capped a 72-hour stretch without precedent in modern American politics.

With less than a month left until Election Day, three things are increasingly clear. Victory in the presidential race has likely slipped beyond Mr. Trump’s grasp, barring some unforeseen cataclysm. The Republican Party is in a world of trouble. And the salacious and misogynist video released on Friday featuring Mr. Trump may be merely a preview of worse to come.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll conducted after the release of Friday’s video but prior to Sunday’s debate found an eye-popping 11-point margin between Democrat Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump among likely voters, 46 per cent of whom supported Ms. Clinton while 35 per cent backed Mr. Trump (the rest backed third-party candidates or no candidate). Last month, the same poll found only a six-point margin between the two major-party candidates.

The campaign took a turn toward the surreal on Friday afternoon, with the release of a video in which Mr. Trump uses vulgar terms to describe women and brags about groping them without their consent. The reaction was swift: Within hours, dozens of Republican officeholders condemned their party’s candidate for president and retracted their endorsements.

At Sunday night’s debate, Mr. Trump did little to tamp down the controversy. Instead, he used the forum to launch a series of unprecedented attacks on Ms. Clinton. He threatened to jail her if elected, called her a “liar” and likened her to the devil.

The no-holds-barred, burn-it-all-down approach that Mr. Trump adopted in Sunday’s debate is unlikely to improve his electoral predicament, say Republican strategists. “It’s a wonderful strategy to energize the people who have been long-time Trump supporters,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “It is an utterly horrible strategy to expand his base of support to the point where he could actually win the election.”

Recent talk of replacing Mr. Trump at the top of the Republican ticket is no more than wishful thinking. While the Republican National Committee has the authority to fill a vacancy on a presidential ticket, it cannot create one. Mr. Trump has shown no sign whatsoever that he is in the mood to abdicate his position as the party’s nominee.

Indeed, on Monday he appeared to revel in the chaos that he had created within the Republican Party. He lashed out at Mr. Ryan on Twitter within hours of the conference call of House members. “Paul Ryan should spend more time on balancing the budget, jobs and illegal immigration and not waste his time on fighting the Republican nominee,” Mr. Trump wrote.

Each Republican candidate running for election now faces the dilemma of how – or whether – to repudiate their party’s nominee for president. On Monday’s conference call, one House member said that for Republicans in close races, finding a path toward victory would be like “landing a plane in the fog with a hurricane blowing,” according to the Associated Press. The Republican further noted that Mr. Trump’s poll numbers have been falling since the first presidential debate and said he expected the decline to continue.

The great fear of many Republican candidates running for Congress has long been that Mr. Trump’s controversial campaign could lead to “a collapse in Republican [voter] turnout,” said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. “Up until this weekend, most people felt that congressional representatives had insulated themselves enough from Trump that they were going to be okay.”

Democrats moved quickly to turn the turmoil to their advantage. The party is seeking not just the presidency under Ms. Clinton but also to retake control of the Senate in the Nov. 8 election, an outcome which is well within the realm of possibility. If Mr. Trump’s meltdown worsens, there is a chance that the House might also be up for grabs.

Jennifer Palmieri, the director of communications for Ms. Clinton’s campaign, said Monday that a “civil war” of sorts had erupted in the Republican Party and she sought to hold its leadership responsible for Mr. Trump’s candidacy. “Donald Trump didn’t become the nominee of his party on his own,” Ms. Palmieri said, according to Politico. “These leaders helped legitimize him and I think they have a lot to answer for.”

Ms. Clinton’s campaign also launched a fresh effort to woo Republican voters to her cause. A new series of ads released Monday feature four lifelong Republicans talking about why they’ve decided to support Ms. Clinton in November.

Meanwhile, it is far from clear that Friday’s video of Mr. Trump, recorded in 2005, is the only one of its kind from his years as a reality-television star. At least one producer who worked with him has suggested that other potentially damaging recordings exist. It’s unclear who leaked the video of Mr. Trump’s lewd remarks – the video belonged to NBC – but some experts believe Ms. Clinton’s campaign has ammunition of its own.

If this tape emerged “a full month before the election, doesn’t it make you wonder what else [the Democrats] have in the can to launch over the final weeks of the election?” asked Mr. Ayres, the Republican pollster. “There is no reason to believe that we have already seen the worst.” And given the vicious nature of this campaign, Mr. Ayres said, “I can’t imagine withholding another punch if you’ve got it.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Oct. 10, 2016 8:41PM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016 5:56AM EDT

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