WASHINGTON – In the interest of fairness, I wish to raise an issue on which Donald Trump has been consistently and resoundingly right: The Republican Party is utterly pathetic.
During a decade of commentary, and in a career of government service before that, I have often argued that the GOP is better than its liberal stereotypes. It is a case I can no longer make, at least when it comes to presidential politics.
The Trump ascendency is the triumph of anti-reason – of birtherism, of vaccine denialism, of suggestions that Justice Antonin Scalia was smothered with a pillow and that Hillary Clinton may have been involved in the death of Vince Foster. It is the triumph of nativism – of a political appeal based on hatred against migrants and Muslims. It is the triumph of white nationalism, which has moved inward from the fringes of Republican politics. It is the triumph of misogyny, demonstrated with words that require a disinfectant shower after hearing. It is the triumph of authoritarian impulses. Since the Constitution is “broken,” argues Maine Gov. Paul LePage, “we need a Donald Trump to show some authoritarian power in our country.”
Trump has made the party a laughingstock among the young, a toxic brand among minorities, an offense to many women, a source of worry among American allies and alarm among national security professionals. And this was before Trump pronounced himself unshackled from the style-cramping expectations of his establishment Republican captors. The main use of his newly found freedom has been to attack GOP leaders. Speaker Paul Ryan has authored “bad budgets.” In what way? They were “very, very bad budgets,” Trump elucidated. He “wouldn’t want to be in a foxhole” with Sen. John McCain – which presumably was the point of his five Vietnam deferments.
Steve Bannon, the CEO of Trump’s campaign, once said, “What we need to do is bitch-slap the Republican Party.” The lift, it might be said, of a driving dream. And how has the object of this contempt responded? It is supine. It is docile. It licks the hand that beats it.
Trump can hardly maintain, for even five minutes, the pose of apology for predatory and abusive language against women before dismissing it as “salty language” or the equivalent of a “sneeze.” Yet Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus calls his apology “heartfelt,” a description he must know to be false. And running-mate Mike Pence goes further, urging evangelicals to accept Trump’s “apology” because they are required to believe in “grace and forgiveness.” Pence is seeking theological cover for cruelty and political cynicism. This is nigh to blasphemy.
There is also a group of Republicans who unendorsed Trump after the most recent taped evidence of misogyny, only to withdraw their unendorsements under pressure. It is hard to secure scientific proof of a politician betraying his or her conscience for political reasons, but this comes pretty close. And the position of Ryan – refusing to defend Trump any damn longer but not unendorsing him – is not much better. His transparent disgust for Trump has become a self-indictment.
This much is clear: Republican leaders offered no effective resistance to the ideological and political demolition of their party. Which may, in the worst case, give George W. Bush the distinction of being the last Republican president.
Trump, it appears, has ceased to seriously pursue that office, using American democracy to work out his inner demons or perhaps to position his brand. And he – employing conspiracy theories and rented spokesmen – may well take the country down a post-election rabbit hole by questioning the legitimacy of what he is already calling a “rigged system” and “a total fix job.”
But assuming Trump is one of American history’s biggest losers – his direction, though not yet his destiny – it will be more difficult for him to make the charge of loserhood against others. And his conspiratorial, self-serving attacks on our constitutional order may seem like spraying graffiti on the Lincoln Memorial. Massive electoral repudiation might speak a language that Republican leaders finally understand, after proving themselves unable to learn the strange tongues of conviction and courage. Maybe they will even be ashamed of themselves, as they should be.
This would set the stage for the recovery of a hopeful center-right conservatism that sees politics as something nobler than scalp-hunting – a politics that begins with gratitude for our national blessings and views America’s flaws and failures as occasions for common purpose. This task, however, will start from scratch. A building on a ruin.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.