Donald Trump began Aug. 2, 2016, no doubt, determined to follow the advice of family and advisers to avoid fueling his own controversies and focus on Hillary Clinton’s manifold failures.
By the end of that day, the Republican nominee had continued his fifth day of conflict with a Gold Star family. He had refused to support the re-election of the Republican speaker of the House and two senators in races essential to maintaining GOP control of the Senate. He had (strangely) urged Americans to dump equities in their 401(k) plans. He had joked that he “always wanted to get the Purple Heart” – the chances of which would have been increased if he had not taken five deferments during the Vietnam War. He had made a statement – “if there is not a better alternative, then you stay” – that seemed to dismiss the gravity of workplace sexual harassment.
Any of these would be judged a gaffe. Taken together, in a single day, they raise the prospect that Trump is being driven by compulsions that have nothing to do with politics. It should now be evident that Trump’s behavior as a candidate will not be changed (at least for long) by appeals to his rational self-interest, because he is not in full control of his impulses. This may be Trump being Trump, but it is utterly terrifying in a prospective president.
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The fondest hope of regular, everyday Republicans has been to keep their heads down, work to maintain control of the House and Senate, and hope the next three months pass quickly so that the rebuilding of the party can commence. Now it is dawning that three months of Trump – a rapid-fire loose cannon – may make keeping congressional control impossible. It may, in fact, leave the national GOP in ruins, with the electoral earth salted among minorities, women and the young.
The unraveling of Trump’s support has begun, and not just among moderates of the Meg Whitman variety. Before backtracking, Trump’s vice presidential finalist Newt Gingrich admitted that neither Hillary Clinton nor Trump were “acceptable” at the moment. Even the sycophantic Chris Christie distanced himself from Trump’s attacks on the Khan family: “It’s just inappropriate for us in this context to be criticizing them, and I’m not going to participate in that.”
But is such discontent a preview of dramatic defections? If they come, they are likely to arrive in a rush, as they did in August 1974. When President Richard Nixon’s “smoking gun” tape was revealed, the wall of Republican resistance to impeachment quickly collapsed. A congressional delegation led by Sen. Barry Goldwater (who blamed himself that he had not acted earlier) informed Nixon it was over. And though his wife and daughters urged him to fight on, Nixon bowed to political reality.
In Trump’s case, we are not dealing with criminality but with temperament, which is not less important. To quote myself from a January column: We are witnessing what happens when a narcissist who thinks he is at the center of the universe is actually placed at the center of the universe. Trump’s political judgments seem mostly based on how others view him, making Vladimir Putin a friend and Paul Ryan an enemy. On policy, Trump claims to know more than the experts while displaying stunning ignorance. He lies with disturbing ease. He seems to lack the gene for empathy.
If Republican leaders believe these things to be true, they should not continue to support Trump for president. I suspect, however, that a principled stand will become more attractive if Trump declines further and consistently in the polls. Integrity is more reliable with the support of interest.
It is hard to imagine that a meeting with party elders in which they urge Trump to renounce his nomination would end well. Any friend bringing such a message to Trump would immediately be categorized an enemy. And Trump’s adoring, overflow crowds must provide him with intoxicating encouragement.
Trump, however, is not the only one being tested. We have seen that Trump is a sadist; now we determine if Republicans are masochists. On the current course, Reince Priebus will be judged the worst GOP party chairman in history. On the current course, Ryan will be discredited as a political and moral leader. On the current course, our children will look back in confusion and contempt, asking: How did you allow such a man to get so close to such an office?
Contact Michael Gerson at firstname.lastname@example.org.