WASHINGTON – A man comes out of a church after a fire-and-brimstone sermon on the Ten Commandments, pauses a moment, and then tells his wife, “At least I haven’t made any graven images!”
This is the type of praise Republicans could muster for Donald Trump’s second debate performance. He did not have a mental breakdown on stage or try to kiss anyone against their will – some of the lowest bars ever set in the presidential debate expectations game.
What Trump actually did was ensure that hard-core conservatives stay with him until the end of his political journey, when Republicans begin the search for survivors and examine the charred black box. Trump’s performance was perfectly tuned to make a loyal Rush Limbaugh listener burst out in “Hell, yeah!” Put Juanita Broaddrick in the audience? Threaten to jail your opponent? Throw WikiLeaks in her face? Blame her for the death of Capt. Khan in Iraq? Dismiss all the fuss about sexual predation as locker-room talk? Hell, yeah!
This kind of thing has been normalized in far-right discourse for decades. To the most partisan and polarized portion of the right, these excuses and accusations were familiar and appropriate.
To many people outside the talk radio hothouse, I can attest, Trump’s debate performance was appalling, contemptible, shameful, squalid, vile. Do we really want a president who views the rule of law as a means to imprison his opposition? A president who dismisses talk of sexual assault on the theory that boys will be boys? A president who urges a foreign power to hack his opponent, then excuses that power when it is caught? A president who accuses his opponent of killing American soldiers based on a position he actually took himself?
Trump and his advisers must know that the conservative talk radio audience, and the Republican primary electorate, is different from a national electorate, which actually includes minorities, young people and women who don’t like disgusting boors. Perhaps Trump’s strategy was a recognition that even his strongest supporters were on the verge of bolting and needed to be appeased. Perhaps Trump’s knowledge of policy is so thin that it fills three or four minutes of a 90-minute debate, and all he has left is trash-talk. Or perhaps he is captive to his impulses, incapable of shame and nasty to the core.
Whatever the explanation, Trump achieved the worst possible outcome for the GOP. He was good enough with his base to avoid a generalized revolt; and bad enough with the rest of the country to continue his slide toward major defeat.
This sad Republican fate is deserved. It is the culmination, the fruition, of an absurdly simplistic anti-establishment attitude. The Trump campaign is what happens when you choose a presidential candidate without the taint of electoral experience – and all the past vetting that comes with it. It is what happens when you pick a candidate who has not engaged in serious public argument over a period in which his or her views and consistency can be tested. It is what happens when you embrace a candidate only on the basis of an outsider persona, who lacks actual political skills – like making a policy argument, empathizing with a voter or avoiding a constant stream of distracting gaffes.
This is what Republicans get for devaluing the calling of public service. When you have contempt for politics, you often get a politics worthy of contempt.
The Trump evangelicals deserve a special shout-out in all this. By accepting, or even excusing, Trump’s talk of sexual predation, they are demonstrating a political polarization that runs so deep that even common decency no longer matters. This is what many Democrats already showed in the 1990s by minimizing or excusing a presidential abuse of power for sexual purposes that seems even more odious at two decades removed. Now some evangelicals are making a similar case – downplaying the importance of integrity, morality and character in leadership.
Until recently, it was presumed, by both critics and supporters, that the GOP was the party of traditional moral order. Under Trump, it seems much more like British conservatism at its worst – hate and mock the liberals, fear the outsiders, and put a topless woman on page 3. The deep partisanship of Trump evangelicals – fighting for a team rather than standing for principles – is actually aiding the secularization of American politics.
And so, it turns out, some are making a graven image – of a figure who deserves contempt.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.