To listen to Republican after Republican, from Speaker Paul Ryan to Sen. John McCain, issue doleful statements decrying Donald Trump’s attack on the Gold Star parents of the late Capt. Humayun Khan is to hear the forewarning bell toll of infamy. Surely, history will remember who stood, to the end, with Donald Trump in his bizarre and divisive quest for the presidency. History will record their names.
There’s Florida’s junior senator, Marco Rubio, who issued a tepid rebuke, days into Trump’s attacks on the Khans, calling it an “unfortunate feud” on the same day he told his supporters, “We have to make sure that Donald wins this election.” Rubio once called Trump a “dangerous con man.” But today, both his re-election in Florida and his prospects for running for president again in 2020 are tied to Trump’s fortunes in his state. And so Rubio demurs.
And whither McCain, whose belated criticism of Trump’s attack on the Khans was dutifully described as “blistering” by the D.C. press corps, but who refused to foreswear his support for “the Republican nominee.” McCain’s own war heroism was belittled by the five-time Vietnam draft avoider, who has vowed to bring torture back as U.S. armed forces policy. But no matter. McCain’s re-election in increasingly competitive Arizona is lashed to Trump’s fortunes. No matter that the state is in play precisely because of Trump’s offensive attacks on an American judge of Mexican descent and his vow to string a Berlin wall across our southern border. McCain, the onetime “maverick,” will not walk away.
House Speaker Paul Ryan remains as vague and listless as ever, as does Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, even after Mr. Khan plaintively beseeched both men, by name, to repudiate Trump and his un-American, unconstitutional vow to ban families like the Khans from entering the United States.
On Tuesday afternoon, Trump may have given McCain and Ryan a way out of purgatory when he refused to endorse either man’s re-election campaign, using the same mealy language of “not quite there yet” that dithering Republicans have used about waiting to endorse him. How ironic it would be if the repayment for the Party Men’s devotion was as much contempt from Trump as they’ve drawn from #NeverTrump conservatives—or worse, if after giving one-way fealty to their party’s nominee, they lost their elections anyway.
The ethno-authoritarian movement that is the Trump campaign has treaded so deeply into uncharted waters, it now expresses Russian nationalism more forcefully than American exceptionalism, with Trump’s followers eagerly going along.
That includes the leaders of the “religious right”—the self-proclaimed defenders of the Christian faith and of old-fashioned family values, who have decided to fully back the thrice-married Lothario whose mantra is that women should be “treated like shit,” in the hopes that he will appoint anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion Puritans to the Supreme Court.
Trump’s brash Putinism; his ignorance of global affairs, complete with the candidate denying the plain fact of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine days after calling on Russian intelligence to commit cyber espionage against his political opponent; and Trump and his team’s deep financial and business ties to Russia, have done nothing to dissuade Trump’s sturdiest supporters, including his men and women on Capitol Hill. Few could have anticipated that we would see the day Republicans cheer heartily for the Russians, while booing the declaration that America is great.
Donald Trump cannot win the White House if he fails to expand his support beyond the bulwark of rural, Southern, and non-college educated white men who polls show formed the bedrock of his support both before and after the Republican and Democratic conventions. Among Trump’s unprecedented feats: He managed to shrink, rather than grow, his support after a one-week infomercial designed to showcase the candidate and his campaign.
The dark, dystopian America described by Trump and his increasingly culturally isolated supporters was grafted to the reputations of Ryan and McConnell, who stood on stage for Trump in Cleveland (Sen. Rubio appeared, strangely, by video). Conventioneers leaving the hotels in Cleveland with satisfied smiles calmly asserted that the Bleak House they heard described on stage is indeed where they believe we live.
Even the mainstream press, whose reflex to normalize any and every candidate, to make a wash of the differences and relative demerits between Democrats and Republicans, is as ingrained as ever, is beginning to shake out of its collective Trump sleepwalk. One by one, journalists are realizing that such rote on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-handism won’t do in such extreme circumstances; with mobocracy and Putinism clamoring at the White House gates. History, and our own consciences, will record what we in media do in this moment of historic crisis, too.
On Tuesday, President Obama said what many Americans are thinking, when he asked Republicans like McCain, McConnell, and Ryan, why, if they find the outrageous things Trump says so unacceptable, they continue to support him. The president, like many stunned Americans, wanted to know where the limit lies, if indeed there is one, where love of country overrides fealty to party. It was an unprecedented rebuke of a potential successor, and a singular challenge to the political leaders on the other side of the aisle.
“There has to be a point,” the president said, “at which you say, ‘This is not somebody I can support for president of the United States, even if he purports to be a member of my party.’”
And yet, for the Grand Old Party Men, it’s the Republican bunker or bust.
It seems that no fact pattern, no matter how alarming or damaging, can shake the support of politicians who despite bitter criticism of Trump’s serial outrages, are loath to abandon him, for fear of jeopardizing their own political futures, which they clearly believe depend on the furious, terrified voters still hoisting the Midnight Authoritarian on their shoulders, waving their pitchforks at the future. It’s left to a handful of Republicans—mostly women, with no elections to lose: an adviser to Jeb Bush, and most notably CEO and former California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who says she will both vote and raise money for Hillary Clinton; plus retiring Congressman Richard Hanna of New York—to lead the parade away from the nominee. The only Republican with a race on the line in November who stands firmly against Trump is Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, whose re-election is probably doomed anyway.
For the rest, so long as Trump is not Hillary Clinton, they are with him, come what may (or “hoping to be persuaded” to his cause by some sudden change in the septuagenarian’s fundamental character).
History will, and should, remember.