BOSTON – Donald Trump’s near meltdown in Monday’s debate surely gave queasy stomachs to Republicans who have bowed before his candidacy despite their better judgments. Trump threatens to give conservative appeasers a very bad name.
Let it be said that at least some in the party will be able to stand proudly after this god-awful election is over. We’re witnessing real courage among those members of the party of Lincoln willing to say openly how genuinely dangerous a Trump presidency would be.
For those whose livelihoods depend on building big audiences among pro-Trump rank-and-file conservatives (think radio talk show hosts and commentators of various kinds), joining the Never Trump camp carries real risks. For liberals, opposing Trump is about the easiest thing in the world, so we should honor the daring of our temporary comrades.
Unfortunately, the Never Trumpers are a minority on the right. More typical are House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the most prominent among the GOP contortion artists who are hedging their bets.
They send signals they know how ridiculous and bigoted Trump is, calling out this or that statement when it’s convenient to do so. But they endorse him anyway to save their down-ticket candidates while hoping that, should he lose, they can curry favor with the now large Trump wing of the party after November.
They have made another bet as well: If Trump were to win, they believe he has so little interest in policy that he would sign whatever bills a conservative Congress put before him. Trump, they hope, would be quite content just occupying a nice piece of real estate on Pennsylvania Avenue to go with the one, as he mentioned on Monday, that he’s presiding over just down the street.
Trump has encouraged this view. He may be unpresidential but he is conversant in making deals and finding the other side’s weak spot. He knows the only thing many conservative politicians and interest groups truly care about are big tax cuts for the rich. So he let supply-side conservatives write him a tax plan. Buying the White House by giving away future federal revenues is classic Trump: using other people’s money to secure his own ends. Besides, he’s now told us he thinks it’s “smart” for wealthy people like him not to pay taxes.
It’s a cozy arrangement, and entirely rational as far as it goes. But for it to work, Trump has to keep himself under some control, becoming sufficiently conventional not to cause too much heartburn to the establishmentarians. If he did it right, he might even win. But at the least, his job is to run well enough to give the Republicans a chance to hold the Senate as well as the House.
Trump showed on Monday that he may not keep his part of the deal, either because he doesn’t want to or because he’s incapable of it. And the risk for the party is high. A Trump who exudes sexism, traffics in racism, exhibits a resolute indifference to facts and demonstrates an inability to do his homework will turn off better educated suburban voters without whom Republicans cannot build their majorities. If more normal Republican politicians continue to collude with Trump, these voters could turn against the whole ticket.
There’s precedent, and Massachusetts (because it’s now seen as so reliably Democratic in presidential elections) is a prime example of how bad things can get for Republicans. The state was at the forefront of a long-term trend: the steady movement of moderate suburbanites, particularly in the Northeast, away from the Republican Party. For many of them, Barry Goldwater’s right-wing candidacy in 1964 sealed the deal.
Take the leafy town of Lexington, similar in its voting patterns to surrounding areas. In 1956, Lexington gave 76 percent of its votes to Dwight Eisenhower. In 1960, it resisted home state favorite John F. Kennedy; Richard Nixon won it with 57 percent. But in 1964, Goldwater received just 31 percent of Lexington’s votes. He was simply too extreme for sober, old-fashioned Republicans. Politically, Massachusetts has never been the same since.
Trump is not yet in Goldwater territory, and might never get there. But unless The Donald of the first debate gives way to a completely different version, he threatens to create another GOP suburban catastrophe pretty much everywhere outside the Deep South. If Trump doesn’t adjust, many of the party’s enablers will soon have to realize that their best survival strategy is to run as far away from him as possible.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.