Political consulting and morality go together about as well as that famous fish and bicycle. Lawyers have constructed a neat paradigm obligating them to handle any and all clients, a very convenient way to maintain pretext of high road while taking any road possible. So it is with political consultants. For years when asked my positions on issues, my standard response has been, “I don’t have positions, I have clients.”
Along the way I’ve been accused of not believing in anything but winning, which I always took as a compliment. The only reason I or any political consultant should be hired is to help a client win. We’re not there to remind a candidate of his deeply held positions or to solve the problems of the world. We are there for one purpose: to do everything possible to win an election. We’re the hammer, votes are the nail.
But to my annoyance, I can’t take that position in the 2016 election. I’d like to blame it on Donald Trump, but that would be like blaming a dog for barking. No, honesty demands the admission that Trump would not be important if he were not winning. And he’s winning.
For months when pressed on Trump and what he meant for the Republican Party, I’ve been giving a stock answer that struck me as both true and easy: If we agree that Trump winning the Republican nomination means something, we have to agree that his not winning means something. That worked well enough and had the added bonus of being a setup—I hoped—for an “I told you so moment” when Trump didn’t win.
After Iowa, that answer was looking pretty good, and it seemed easy enough to defeat Trump when his image of “winner” had been damaged. But to my utter astonishment, none of the Republican campaigns focused on what was the screamingly obvious mandate of the moment: defeat Trump. Instead there was this mass hysteria of candidates fighting fiercely to determine what order the losers could finish behind Trump.
Jeb Bush took on Trump more than any candidate but he was, bizarrely, not backed with sufficient force by the huge weaponry of his Right to Rise super PAC. Instead of scrambling to put the best tanks into the field to face the enemy’s armor, Right to Rise spent more than $100 million in the care and feeding of cavalry horses. Predictably, once the shooting started, they were slaughtered.
So now Trump has won three of the four latest contests and is poised to keep winning until he has enough delegates to secure the Republican nomination. There is still some hope that he can be stopped short of the 1,236 delegates needed to win on the first ballot, but realistically this requires the three major candidates facing Trump—Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich—to win their home states between now and March 16. It looks like Cruz will do so on Tuesday, but at the moment Rubio is considerably behind Trump in Florida, and Kasich and Trump are basically tied in Ohio.
Can it happen? Sure. Will it? Well, I hope so. (And any time political consultants use phrases like “I hope so,” it is like a doctor looking at an X-ray and saying, “That shadow might be an imaging error.” Don’t count on it.)
On Sunday, Feb. 28, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination was unable to answer a question about renouncing David Duke and white supremacists. “I don’t know anything about David Duke,” Trump said, which places the candidate in the unenviable position that his defenders could claim he wasn’t a bigot but merely the dumbest man in America. Jake Tapper of CNN continued to push Trump, and he continued to refuse to denounce Duke and white supremacists. Only later in the day did Trump tweet out that, gee, he didn’t really like Duke.
This latest is more than utterly disgusting. It really makes it impossible to pretend that Trump is not only an idiot but also a racist idiot. Yes, there were plenty of reasons to believe this before, with his rants about Mexican “rapists” and his prideful embrace of running for president in the Key of Hate. This is a man who attacked the pope. But even if Trump says he has never asked God for forgiveness—for his sake, let’s hope that’s another Trump lie—Americans are forgiving and there is always the tendency to give people another chance to correct mistakes.
But we shouldn’t be giving Trump any more room for doubt. He’s proven he’s a uniquely ugly figure to emerge in American political history. He’s threatened citizens who oppose him, like his outburst against the Ricketts family, who have contributed to a super PAC opposing him. He ended the week ranting about rewriting libel laws and threatening Amazon because founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post and it is covering Trump. Fortunately, Bezos is vastly wealthier than Trump and can buy and sell him a dozen times over. In Trump’s value system, Bezos is much the better man. Actually that’s one thing Trump probably has right.
Across the spectrum, smart and troubled voices on the center-right spectrum are articulating why they will not support Trump and why Republicans must reject the menace. Former George W. Bush speechwriter Pete Wehner, one of the most eloquent voices, wrote in The New York Times: “Mr. Trump’s virulent combination of ignorance, emotional instability, demagogy, solipsism and vindictiveness would do more than result in a failed presidency; it could very well lead to national catastrophe.”
He’s right, of course. Every Republican, from elected officials to super volunteers to leaders of the party, must ask themselves what it will mean for the GOP and, vastly more important, the country to play a role enabling this hateful man. Hillary Clinton will likely crush him, but that’s really not the point. There is something at stake here larger than one election. To support Trump is to support the hate and racism he embodies. That is simply an intolerable moral position for any political party.
If Trump wins the nomination, politicians who support him will be acquiescing to, if not actively aiding, his hate. Donors, including the corporate donors, whom every convention depends on for support, cannot support a man with Trump’s unbalanced, bigoted views. How can any corporation justify to its board that it donated funds to support a bigot?
If the Republican Party stands for nothing but winning elections, it deserves to lose. It will with Trump. But on the day after the election, the pain will not be just that the White House, the Senate, and possibly the House of Representatives are now in Democratic hands.
No, the greatest pain will be from the shame of pretending that an evil man was not evil and a hater really didn’t mean what he said. We hold elections every two years, and there is always the chance to regain lost offices. But there is no mechanism to regain one’s dignity and sense of decency once squandered.
That defeat is permanent. To support Trump is to support a bigot. It’s really that simple.