Less than a month away from the general election, the national Republican Party is descending into chaos.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump have all but gone their separate ways. Ryan announced his intention to effectively cut Trump loose Monday and focus on the congressional majorities. Trump has resumed sniping at Ryan.

Each man had to be dragged kicking and screaming into endorsing the other. While technically neither endorsement has been retracted, both men now seem to be at square one.

The proximate cause of the latest split is the recording of Trump engaging in foul talk about women, the worst of which can be construed as describing sexual assault. Monday’s public polling confirmed what Republican internals no doubt showed after the story broke: that Trump has taken a big hit and threatens to drag Capitol Hill Republicans down with him.

There’s just one problem: Trump delivered a debate performance Sunday night that is likely to endear him to a large part of the Republican base, including some voters who supported other candidates during the primaries.

Grassroots conservatives have been waiting decades for a Republican leader to stand up on national television and tell that the Clintons exactly what he and the Right think of them. Trump did that, semi-successfully changing the subject from his bawdy talk with Billy Bush to Hillary Clinton’s emails and the women who have accused Bill Clinton of actually committing sexual assault.

It was a gambit that could have easily blown up in Trump’s face. Perhaps it still will, but it at least appeared that he made it off the stage in St. Louis having not only averted disaster but rallied his troops.

To Republicans in Washington, Trump is a millstone around the party’s neck, someone who confirms the worst stereotypes about what it means to be a Republican and who therefore may doom them for a generation with rising demographic groups.

Many rank-and-file Republicans see it differently. They don’t trust their party’s leaders and governing class. They see a Democratic Party that fights for what it believes in while their own party heads for the tall grass at the first sign of mainstream media trouble.

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In Trump, they see what Abraham Lincoln — Hillary Clinton’s new favorite president and the GOP’s first — said of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant: “I can’t spare this man; he fights!”

“Sometimes, Republicans get a little weak-kneed,” Rudy Giuliani told reporters after the debate. “I happen to be a Republican with strong knees.”

Trump backers protested the Republican National Committee over the party’s treatment of their candidate on Monday. (Paradoxically, the RNC is the most Trump-friendly official party organ.) One carried a sign using the same vulgar term Trump used to describe female genitalia to instead refer to the party leadership.

Twenty years ago, Republicans backed away from Bob Dole’s doomed candidacy and diverted resources to the congressional majorities on the grounds that another Clinton couldn’t be given a blank check. But there were key differences.

Dole trailed almost throughout the 1996 race. Trump was competitive, perhaps leading, just weeks ago. Dole was being jettisoned entirely because of his standing in the polls. In Trump’s case, his long-term effect on the party’s brand is a bigger concern.

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Bob Dole was a longtime party loyalist and former RNC chairman. Trump has no such long-term institutional loyalties and his voters aren’t necessarily that strongly tied to the party anymore either.

GOP incumbents are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. They can be tarnished by their ties to Trump or punished by Trump voters. Some are at risk of facing both fates at once. This may be especially true of Republican senators up for re-election in battleground states.

The biggest problem for the GOP is that this isn’t entirely a Trump-created problem, though he has been a vehicle for those most disaffected with the party. Trump is a symptom of a crisis of legitimacy within the Republican Party, a split between its voters and the donor/consultant/governing class.

Trump’s GOP is talking to itself and offending everyone else. The establishment’s GOP can’t even talk to itself.

The Republicans who are best at outreach are often worst at inreach to the party’s base. The opposite is also true. Until that basic conflict is revolved, Trump is a bright, orange warning sign that the GOP’s circular firing squad isn’t going to disband anytime soon.

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