Presidential nominee Donald Trump’s days of dividing the Republican Party are not over.
Far from consolidating his support since becoming the party’s nominee, he’s doing his damnedest to drive sentient Republicans from his column. His refusal Tuesday to endorse the re-election bids of House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Arizona Senator John McCain (whom Trump already slammed for being a prisoner of war in Vietnam) makes this abundantly clear. Not to mention ejecting a crying baby from his rally earlier that day.
President Barack Obama clearly counted on this GOP buyers’ remorse when he suggested at his Tuesday press conference that the Republicans un-nominate Trump.
Obama must know that there’s no plausible way that could happen. Yet he also probably, and correctly, anticipated that his suggestion wouldn’t cause Republicans to reflexively defend Trump – even though everything else Obama says and does instantly provokes an opposite and more-than-equal reaction from the GOP.
Such are the doubts that Trump has inspired in his own ranks, however, that no such rallying to the Donald’s banner occurred. Instead, the Great GOP What-Do-We-Do-With-Our-Nominee debate rages on.
Among Republican thought leaders, two opposing arguments have emerged. One, exemplified by commentator Hugh Hewitt, argues that keeping Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton from making liberal appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court should transcend all other considerations for conservatives. “If Hillary Clinton wins,” Hewitt wrote in Monday’s Washington Examiner, “the left gavels in a solid, lasting, almost certainly permanent majority on the Supreme Court.”
Hewitt sees a President Trump as the solution. “The vast majority of his team in the executive branch,” Hewitt adds, “will be conservatives.”
The other tendency, exemplified by Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, whose conservative bona fides are every bit as sound as Hewitt’s, argues that questions of ideology pale alongside those of Trump’s fitness for office – much less for the presidency.
“The central issue in this election isn’t Trump’s ideas, such as they are,” Stephens wrote in Tuesday’s Journal. ”It’s his character, such as it is…. His problem isn’t a lack of normal propriety but the absence of basic human decency. He is morally unfit for any office, high or low.”
Alongside that moral deformity – so overwhelmingly in evidence with Trump’s attacks on the Gold Star parents of deceased Medal of Honor winner Army Captain Humayun Khan – comes a further deformity guaranteed to keep many Republicans awake at night: Trump’s complete lack of impulse control.
He may be surrounded by the kind of conservative pros whose presence lets Hewitt snooze undisturbed. But none of those pros could keep Trump from attacking the Khans. Or, some weeks earlier, attacking a federal judge overseeing a lawsuit against Trump University for having Mexican ancestry.
The question of whether the finger on the nuclear button should belong to a guy with the impulse control of a 2-year-old – and so completely impervious to fact that he confessed on Sunday he didn’t know that Russia had soldiers in Ukraine – isn’t a question of ideology. Either his own or those of his appointees.
In 1964, the Democrats’ broadcast their famous “Daisy” ad, which implied that Republican nominee Barry Goldwater’s loose talk about nukes might just lead to a nuclear holocaust. It aired two years after the Cuban missile crisis had frightened the American public as never before.
Though a few commentators upped the ante by implying that Goldwater might just be a bit unstable, that line of attack never caught on. No one went so far as to suggest that Goldwater had no control over his emotions, or that he responded to challenges by lashing out blindly and relentlessly.
No one needs to suggest that about Trump, either. With each passing day, he demonstrates he has no control over his easily piqued rage.
A number of conservative intellectuals have already abandoned Trump for his heresies against some venerable conservative tenets. Columnist George Will leads this particular pack. But it’s Stephens’ argument, that Trump is, by dint of character and intellect – or lack thereof – unfit to be president that you’d think would carry more weight with conservatives.
Instead, what we’ve been seeing, with a few notable exceptions, is a series of profiles in cowardice. Obama’s suggestion to the contrary, there’s really no way the party can un-nominate Trump. Even if Republicans could agree on that, it’s doubtful they could readily settle on an alternative nominee. If they could, they wouldn’t have split their vote among so many candidates during the primaries.
But could leading Republicans individually announce that, putting country over party, they’re refusing to support Trump? Of course they could. Indeed, for Ryan and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, repudiating Trump could actually yield some long-term benefits.
For Republicans with a rooting interest in their party’s future, rejecting Trump wouldn’t only be a matter of putting country above party. However much such repudiations might hurt the party this November – and it’s by no means clear that they would – they would surely help it in the long run.
The very groups that Trump attacks – Latinos most particularly – are the groups that are increasing in numbers within the electorate. In future election cycles, such groups, and many Americans with a sense of common decency, are likely to regard Republicans who knew better but stuck with Trump as unworthy of the public trust.
And they’d be right.