The Donald Trump campaign, for all the confusion it’s produced, is proving a clarifying moment. Trump will never build his great wall along the southern border, but each day in the race draws more solidly a line that we’ll be able to use in the future to delineate Republicans: On which side were you during the Trump phenomenon?
The candidates surely know what millions of the rest of us do: Trump is alarmingly ignorant of even the most basic matters of statecraft. And yet they’ve been wary to step out say that outright, because the more forcefully (and truthfully) one makes the charge, the more you’re likely you’ll be asked thorny questions about your commitment to the Republican Party next November: Will you vote for a dangerously incompetent, and apparently somewhat unstable candidate over a qualified one across party lines? Will you vote for someone unfit to lead the nation (hell, any nation) simply because he has an R next to his name on the ballot?
As the bizarre charade of the Trump candidacy crested in late summer, leaving statistical crumbs for the tail end of the massive GOP field, those hopeless “kids’ table” contenders began to attack Trump not on policy grounds as much as in terms of his being “unfit” and “unqualified” for the office. Also-rans like Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry all tried to distinguish themselves by finally saying what so many of his were already thinking: Trump is an unqualified, unstable egomaniac. He’s a DSM V entry running for president.
Senator Graham called Trump a “jackass” who “shouldn’t be Commander in Chief.” Pataki called him “unfit” for the office. Bobby Jindal, whose early political promise has eroded to a sub-1 percent showing in polls, has been the most vociferous in his condemnation, calling Trump “a madman who must be stopped.” He calls the race’s leader an “unstable narcissist,” “a non-serious carnival act” who “has no idea what he is talking about.” In July, Rick Perry, whose imminent early exit from the race perhaps made him most free to speak his mind, called Trump a “cancer,” “a toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness and nonsense” before shuttering his campaign.
It’s notable that this sort of attack is mostly confined to candidates who have little to lose. Perhaps blinded by desperation, they’re saying what most other candidates seem afraid to utter, something that more competitive candidates must feel to be dangerous. Only Marco Rubio, who in late August was surging in pursuit of flirting with the top non-outsider spot in the polls, joined the bottom-dwellers to attack the billionaire dilettante on his ignorance, calling Trump someone who “can’t have a conversation about policy because quite frankly he doesn’t know anything about policy.” Rubio even called the Trump campaign a “freak show.”
The other top-tier candidates have so far shied from such attacks, despite the cover given by the Des Moines Register, whose editorial staff in July wrote that “Trump, by every indication, seems wholly unqualified to sit in the White House” and that “Trump has proven himself not only unfit to hold office, but unfit to stand on the same stage as his Republican opponents.”
But even the desperate, low-single-digit candidates, so articulate in their descriptions of Trump’s staggering unfitness for the presidency, are unable to utter the simple handful of words that complete their charge: ...and so I cannot support Trump as nominee. I cannot vote for Trump if he wins the party’s nomination, because I can’t put my country in the hands of someone that dangerous. No one has declared that they could not vote for an “unfit,” “narcissistic,” “unstable,” “cancer” “who has no idea what he is talking about” and “must be stopped.”
The only exception is former New York governor and current bottom-of-the-field candidate George Pataki, who stepped forward last month to declare that he won’t vote for Trump, tweeting, “Let me be very plain, I'm not going to vote for @RealDonaldTrump … He is unfit to be president.” He followed the tweet with another imploring other in the GOP field to follow suit. No one has yet heeded Pataki’s call.
Even Bobby Jindal, who’s been the most explicit in his attacks on Trump, cannot say that he wouldn’t support a Trump candidacy in 2016. Appearing on CNN with Wolf Blitzer last month, the Louisiana governor was pressed three times on whether he’d support Trump as the GOP nominee next year. Each time, Jindal hedged and was unable to bring himself to say that he wouldn’t vote for or support an “unstable” “madman,” were that madman to become the Republican nominee, despite his suggestion that a Trump victory is to be feared more than Clinton win. “Not only is it dangerous that he could implode against Hillary," Jindal told Blitzer, "what’s even more dangerous is, what happens if he gets elected?”