Republicans’ five stages of post-Trump tape grief
A crisp, beautiful Saturday afternoon in Elkhorn, Wisconsin was one of the more remarkable four hours in the remarkable recent history of the Republican Party.
At the Walworth County Fairgrounds, Republicans gathered for an annual low-dollar picnic fundraiser hosted by House Speaker and native son Paul Ryan. It was about as generic, and idyllic, a political scene as can be imagined: a stage covered in American flags, hay bales and festive gourds to mark the coming of autumn.
The plan was to unite the GOP under the Wisconsin sky, with Donald Trump and Ryan — who has clashed with his party’s nominee multiple times this year — sharing the same stage and kicking off the final month until election day.
But this particular day in the American electoral calendar was clouded by a storm kicked up less than 24 hours earlier when a 2005 clip of Trump bragging about what he can do to women because he’s famous landed on the internet. Ryan, along with most of the party establishment, immediately condemned the video. Trump’s appearance at the event was canceled.
The day of unity was gone. In its place was an afternoon more like a dysfunctional family Thanksgiving than a banal party building event. Ryan and other top elected Wisconsin Republicans on stage didn’t mention Trump by name. People who had traveled for miles to see Trump, and paid the $60 it cost to attend, heckled the elected officials from the audience. Republicans who came to see Ryan heckled the hecklers.
Officials had no idea what was happening; preparations for a Secret Service-approved crowd-control set up were scrapped after Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, unexpectedly also didn’t show up. (Pence released a statement condemning Trump too.)
It was a bad day for Trump, a bad day for Pence, a bad day for Ryan. Republicans at the Fall Fest were in a kind of daze as the shock wave from the 2005 tape reached Wisconsin.
Some denied Tapegate was happening.
“I haven’t seen it,” said Chris Goebel, Walworth County GOP chair. “I don’t haste to judgements until I have an opportunity to see the whole thing.”
Was Goebel planning to watch it?
“Maybe,” he said.
Others reacted to the tape with anger.
“I’m disappointed this morning,” said Tim West, a Trump supporter in a Cubs jersey. “I feel like I got beat up pretty hard on this and I’m going to heal on this.”
Some suggested Trump try and strike a bargain with voters to put the story behind him.
“I’d like to see an apology, and maybe even some sort of act of resentment for what he did,” said Peter Schnaubelt, a 15 year-old in a Make America Great Again hat who stopped by Fall Fest with his grandmother. “I heard a really good one that said he should shave his head for what he did. To kind of say, you know, ‘I was really disrespectful and shamed these people, so I shaved my head to shame myself.”
The tape just exacerbated a depression that some Republicans have been feeling since Trump’s ascendance began.
“I am not a Republican anymore,” said Michelle Silts, a mother wearing an Evan McMullin shirt with Ryan buttons on it. Silts said she would smack her teenage son “upside the head” if he ever talked like Trump had on the tape. Shilts was a lifelong Republican who said Trump, and her party’s acceptance of him, had caused her to sever all ties with the GOP.
“I can’t remember which outburst it was,” she said. “It was before the Khan family. What was the one before that? I can’t remember.”
But there was a general sense of acceptance that the tape made life harder for Republicans in the final month of the 2016 contest. There were arguments about why this was — some said the media would unfairly overplay the tape, making Trump look bad. Others said undecided voters wouldn’t be able to overlook Trump’s 2005 words and would be more drawn to Hillary Clinton because of them.
Jake Margis, chairman of the Wisconsin Young Republicans, was one of the first speakers on stage. His speech, which he read from a printout, didn’t mention Trump either. But it appealed to Republicans to turn away from Trump-style rhetoric in favor of positive messaging he said was the key to winning younger voters to the GOP.
After the event, he expressed disgust at Trump’s 2005 remarks and said there was not much Republicans could do about them now. He said it was time for this party to try to move on from Trump.
“No matter what happens, you can’t let all those other negative forces like determine what your path you go on, you keep pushing through all that and you look at the end prize,” he said.