With Donald Trump now apparently spending every waking hour justifying longstanding complaints about his unfitness for office, Republicans are beginning to wake up to the nightmare they have created for themselves with their willingness to back Trump. To be fair, there are two types of Republicans now living through the Trumpian Inferno: those who stayed silent during the primaries, thereby handing the primaries to Trump, and those who opposed Trump. But it won’t matter much in the end: they’ll all ride the slow boat to electoral hell with him.
Today saw a bevy of Republican leaders struggle with their decision to back Trump, come hell or high water. They could have held out; they could have said that Trump would have to prove to them that he was conservative, that he wasn’t a nutcase, that he could in fact fulfill his promises to be presidential. They didn’t. Now they’re passengers on the Trump Train, and it’s headed for Eastwood Ravine.
Top Republicans now have the look of existential angst that once graced the countenances of Chris Christie and Ben Carson. Christie, for one, has learned to live with his new status as Trump flunkey: as Renfield to Trump’s Dracula, he’ll keep serving the master so long as Trump feeds him spiders to replenish his life force. So today, Christie pulled a Lady Gaga and celebrated Donald Trump’s right to express himself: “Those are Donald’s opinions. And he has a right to express them, the same way anybody else has the right to express their views regarding how they’re treated in the civil or criminal courts in this country. That’s part of what free speech is about.” He then called Trump “refreshing” and added, “I think you all are paying much too much attention on this.”
Newt Gingrich, yet another Trump Igor, is learning to love his new overlord, too. After hearing about Trump’s Curiel comments, Gingrich called them “inexcusable.” Trump then fired back by calling Gingrich’s comments “inappropriate.” Gingrich promptly bent over and screamed, “THANK YOU SIR! MAY I HAVE ANOTHER?” (His actual comment: “Trump is going to be fine as a candidate. He is learning very rapidly….Trump’s complaints about the judge and the law firm in the Trump University case are valid and reflect a growing pattern of politicized ‘justice.’”)
Then there are the mixed multitude: Republicans who support Trump but have to convince themselves of that fact every morning. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who declared his support for Trump late last week, said, “Claiming a person can’t do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment. I think that should be absolutely disavowed. It’s absolutely unacceptable.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, too, came out against Trump’s comments but refused to call them racist. He added, “I think the bad news is that he needs to have a full understanding of what he can and can’t do. We don’t have dictators in this country.” He said of Trump’s attacks on Curiel, “We don’t do that sort of thing in America.”
All of that earned Ryan and McConnell the scorn of one Jeffrey Lord, Official Trump Avatar. Lord said, “Speaker Ryan is wrong and Speaker Ryan has apparently switched position and is now supporting identity politics, which is racist…The Republican establishment is playing this.” He then impugned McConnell, too.
That isn’t stopping the rhetorical exodus away from Trump’s campaign. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who just last week came out and said he’d speak for Trump at the Republican National Convention, has now backed off: “I’ve never said I would stand and speak on behalf of someone else’s agenda. I would speak about the things I believe in, not somebody else’s platform or on behalf of anyone else for that matter.” Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), who has been widely discussed as a possible Trump VP pick, said that he didn’t condone Trump’s comments and that Trump would have to change: “To say that somebody because of their background or their ethnicity has – doesn’t have the ability to carry something out is wrong.”
None of this will change Trump, however.
Trump has already told his campaign surrogates, in a leaked phone call, that they ought to attack Curiel directly. This fits the Trump pattern: always attack. There’s a reason a Trump surrogate reportedly called up David French’s wife to threaten her after Trump found out that French was considering a third party run.
And while we’re seeing a temporary respite of sanity from some Republicans, they’ll be back to pressuring the rest of us to jump behind Trump soon enough. Our very unwillingness to back Trump sticks in their craw; it’s a direct repudiation of their morally obtuse argument that Trump won’t damage conservatism if they consolidate behind him.
Hence the words of Trump’s shinebox specialist, Mike Huckabee, who told Sean Hannity that the Republican establishment “need to be happy they’re only getting spanked and not executed.” And hence the Republican outrage at Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE), who has openly refused to back Donald Trump. Politico reports today:
The blowback started in earnest in May at a state Republican convention, with the passage of a resolution seen as a clear rebuke of Sasse. It stated that the state party would not support any Republican officeholder who opposes the GOP presidential nominee or advocates a third-party candidate….Sasse’s anti-Trump mission is infuriating many Nebraska Republicans, who view it not only as self-serving but a boon to Hillary Clinton. Others privately wonder whether there is substance behind Sasse’s lofty language and question whether his meteoric rise has perhaps left him in over his head….He is also increasingly a no-show at Republican Party lunches, even as he keeps up his social media presence. The prevailing view among Senate Republicans is that Sasse is preparing to run for president, and sooner rather than later.
Politico goes on to complain that Sasse isn’t spending enough time naming Post Offices.
Yes, Sasse will become an outsider because he’s not willing to clamber aboard the Trump bandwagon, just as Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) became an outsider because he was unwilling to go along with McConnell’s refusal to use the power of the purse to stop the Obama agenda.
This will be the give-and-take of the Trump campaign: Republicans driven away from Trump by his definitional unfitness, reluctantly returning to Trump out of a feeling of necessity, swinging behind Trump enthusiastically in order to justify their support, and then pressuring other Republicans to do the same and getting angry when they don’t.
In the end, the only thing that will matter is who kept standing by Trump when he alienated every possible constituency in American life, and who stood by principle instead.