WASHINGTON – I just finished watching “Stranger Things,” the Netflix series in which government scientists try to spy on Russians by sending a girl with telekinetic powers into a parallel universe.
The plan goes awry when the girl, by opening the gate between universes, allows a faceless, long-clawed monster to escape. The Demogorgon begins kidnapping and eating people in the real world, and the scientists, powerless to stop it, are themselves devoured.
Watching this flesh-eating monster consume the very people who made it possible naturally brought to mind Donald Trump.
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Republican leaders tried to harness the power of parallel universes – the tea party, the birthers, the alt-right and others aggrieved by women, immigrants and racial and religious minorities – and their experimentation unleashed Demogorgon Trump, who is now eating defenseless party leaders alive.
Take House Speaker Paul Ryan, who didn’t step up to oppose Trump a year ago when he and other leaders, acting in concert, probably could have rallied the GOP to reject Trump. Now Ryan is doing many of the right things – condemning Trump’s videotaped remarks about women, announcing he won’t defend or campaign with Trump and advising members to “do what’s best for you in your district” regarding Trump. But the monster continues marauding.
This weekend, Ryan took issue with Trump’s talk about rigged elections and other remarks that could induce violence on and after Election Day. His office released a statement saying he is “fully confident” in election integrity. Trump swiped at Ryan in a series of tweets: “Paul Ryan, always fighting the Republican nominee! … Paul Ryan, a man who doesn’t know how to win (including failed run four years ago). … Paul Ryan does zilch!”
And it’s not just Ryan who lost control. Even Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, can’t bring the monster to heel. “We will absolutely accept the results of the election,” he said Sunday, only for Trump to tweet Monday that “there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before Election Day. Why do Republican leaders deny what is going on? So naive!”
Between Saturday morning and Monday morning, the Trump monster fired off tweets and retweets with a combined 30 exclamation points: “CORRUPTION CONFIRMED … voter fraud! … RIGGED! … another hoax … totally phoney 1[sic] stories … corrupt political machine pushing crooked Hillary Clinton … SO CORRUPT! … Media rigging election! … Media rigging election!”
Trump in recent days has suggested Clinton is on drugs, talked of a “stolen election” and called Clinton the “devil.” The Anti-Defamation League has protested Trump’s use of anti-Semitic tropes when he talks of Clinton meeting “in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty” and of “media enablers” controlling the nation “through means that are very well known.” Trump earlier called international-trade supporters “bloodsuckers.”
The prospect of Trump-induced violence on or after Election Day – he has directed his supporters to monitor polling places, a recipe for conflict – seems to be growing. After the Arizona Republic endorsed a Democrat for president for the first time in its 125-year history, the paper’s management received death threats. After Saturday’s firebombing of a county GOP office in North Carolina (Clinton called it “horrific and unacceptable” and was “grateful that everyone is safe”), Trump inflamed tensions by saying, “Animals representing Hillary Clinton and Dems in North Carolina just firebombed our office.”
Trump’s depredations have left Ryan, the highest-ranking Republican in the land, in a no-win situation. He could revoke his Trump endorsement, but this would require resigning the speakership, because a majority of GOP caucus members are from heavily conservative districts where Trump is popular. They, like Trump and his legions, are already furious with Ryan, and his criticism of Trump only makes them angrier. I’m told Ryan considered resigning, but this would accomplish little beyond generating more chaos in an already ungovernable GOP caucus.
Alternatively, Ryan could have been quiet about Trump’s outrages as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has, or he could have become a Trump cheerleader the way Pence has. That might have better preserved Ryan’s standing with conservatives for a 2020 presidential run. But Pence and McConnell have sacrificed their moral standing. Liberals call Ryan cowardly because he won’t formally un-endorse Trump, but he has left no doubt about his contempt for his party’s nominee.
More than 15 months ago, I argued that “Trump may be a monster, but he’s the monster Republicans created.” Ryan failed to act, and now it’s too late. GOP leaders long ago lost their leash on this monster.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.