This is an American tragedy: Republicans must step up and defeat Donald Trump

It's time for honest Republicans to speak out against this dangerous, unprincipled vulgarian. Who has the courage?

Published May 28, 2016 12:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

As a Democrat, part of me delights in the opportunities provided by the coming elections. With Trump at the top of the Republican ticket, Democrats might – just might – find themselves not only with the presidency, but in control of the Senate. But the state of our politics is so grave that it’s difficult to derive much joy out of the situation. Like others on both sides of the aisle, I already feel tainted by Trump’s rank tribalism and childish tantrums. But if he drags all of us into his petulant winner-takes-all mentality, he might, even in defeat, achieve a kind of victory. This may do him little good personally, but it does our politics considerable harm. Even a sound, publicly partisan Democratic victory may normalize his cheap sexism and fragile insecurity, his Know-Nothing nativism and racism, and his easy toleration of violence in the campaign and in the world.

Trump is not merely a Republican dilemma, but an American tragedy. Ideally, conservatives would acknowledge their role in enabling his candidacy, in moving the boundaries of acceptable rhetoric so far from reason that he can lie indiscriminately without fear of correction by journalists anxious for their next story. But more immediately, Republicans must find ways to defend their principles without capitulation to a vulgarian seemingly without principles of any sort. Trump deserves more than defeat by my party. He and his enthusiasts and enablers must be publicly, popularly shamed by all citizens who see him as a political cancer.

Admittedly, this will almost certainly require acceptance of a Clinton victory. This is no small price for life-long Republicans who oppose her. But only a crushing loss might wash away the Trump-shaped stain on the Republican Party, on the body politic, and on our international reputation. Honest conservatives appreciate the real differences between Clinton and Trump. As conservative writer PJ O’Rourke said on NPR, “Clinton is the second-worst thing that can happen to this country, but she's way behind in second place. She's wrong about absolutely everything, but she's wrong within normal parameters.” As he suggests, Trump is something else, something relatively new to American politics, and something to be feared. At stake is both the soul of the GOP and the collective civility of American political discourse.

While O’Rourke said he was voting for Hillary, he’d presumably split his vote: he’d vote for Clinton as President and Republicans on the rest of the ballot. Others might not vote for her, but accept her in the short term, not least to limit any collateral political damage that Trump might bring. Deeply critical of Trump’s conservative credentials, columnist George Will wrote that this was “a time for prudence, which demands the prevention of a Trump presidency.” Against this outcome,

conservatives would have two tasks. One would be to help him lose 50 states — condign punishment for his comprehensive disdain for conservative essentials, including the manners and grace that should lubricate the nation’s civic life. Second, conservatives can try to save from the anti-Trump undertow as many senators, representatives, governors and state legislators as possible.

Indeed, as Michael Gerson concluded, after listing Trumps many vices, “[n]one of this requires a vote for Hillary Clinton. But it forbids a vote for Donald Trump.”

In fact, Republicans have a number of options that don’t require them to surrender their values, either to Trump or Clinton. Although there’s little time left for it, they can offer another candidate. Just this week, The National Review begged Mitt Romney to enter the race. They argued:

The American people need the chance to make a better choice. Given the stakes of the election, to simply leave the race to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is to guarantee a terrible presidency marked by incompetence and cronyism. There is just one hope — however slim — of avoiding this national disaster: America needs a third option.

Other names besides Romney have been floated. And Republicans, or some significant number of Republicans, could pledge temporary loyalty to a third party. This year, the Libertarian Party might field a ticket of two former two-term Republican Governors: Gary Johnson (New Mexico) and William Weld (Massachusetts). This could be a strong draw for those unsatisfied with Trump. Finally, they can refuse to fundraise or abstain from any active support, as the Bushes – the only surviving Republican ex-Presidents – appear to be doing. They can withdraw from the convention or set up a rival event, etc, etc.

And Democratic victories aren’t assured even for the presidency. We have our own, milder demagogue to deal with. Senator Sanders, only recently a party member, could still jeopardize our chances in the fall. In their zeal, his supporters have embraced 25 years of right-wing rant against the Clintons. Worse, too many have adopted the incivility, paranoia, and Manichean politics we’ve associated with the Tea Party. For them, middle ground is scorched earth. The Democratic Party is merely a vehicle for their program. And while Sanders paints himself as a populist fighting a rigged game, his actions show him to be neither a loyal Democrat nor particularly concerned with democracy. He might still grease the wheels of the Trump Train.

As immune to critique and truth as Trump is, the coming months promise an assault of a sort that he’s never seen before. His Republican opponents might have accomplished more if they had treated him more seriously early on. But they waited too long for their attacks to seem like anything more than sour grapes. True, Mitt Romney’s March intervention was scathing, but too late. The governor said that “Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He's playing the American public for suckers ….” As to his prescriptions,

His domestic policies would lead to recession. His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president. And his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.

While this suggested a renewed fight against Trump, the remaining candidates – Grumpy, Sleepy, and Dopey – were no match. The Donald had already established himself as a vague spokesmen for a vague discontent, not least the real, but ridiculous angst of white men who believe the country was being taken from them by a long list of shadowy others. And if the note differs slightly and the messenger is madder than most, Trump’s narrative is rooted in a long line of Republican dog-whistle politics.

The actual campaign will be different. Despite Clinton’s lack of Obamaesque charisma, she’s no Ted Cruz. And she’s tougher than Rubio, Jeb, Carson and Christie combined. She’ll have both more ideological room and intellectual resources with which to attack than Trump’s Republican opponents did.

Of course, she’ll have to be on her game. The Donald will say anything to win. As David Brooks wrote two months ago, “Trump is perhaps the most dishonest person to run for high office in our lifetimes. All politicians stretch the truth, but Trump has a steady obliviousness to accuracy.”

The media’s failure to press him on this, the false equivalence of the two candidates, has exacerbated this flaw. It remains to be seen how Trump will square the vacuum of his values – empty even by political standards – with a party manifesto, talking points, and the fear that he will lead his new Party into the abyss. And for a man with a thin skin and tiny hands, it’ll be difficult for him not to Tweet angrily at every slight, real or perceived. Even John Miller will struggle to conceal, or comb over, Trump’s limitations.

But that we’ve arrived at this point at all is profoundly depressing. Most shameful may be the support that Trump has received from evangelicals. Significant sections of American conservatism are rooted in ideological, often religious, purity. The vacuity of Trump’s politics, the pantomime of religious sincerity, and the vulgarity of his very public private life should make him a pariah for them. But to these moralistic minions, intolerant of so much, his very visible sins are ignored.

As Gerson noted, Trump “mocks disabled people, demeans women, engages in ethnic stereotyping and encourages religious bigotry”; his hatred was “fundamentally inconsistent with Christian ethics ….” He insisted that those tolerating Trump must appreciate the significance of their action:

Make no mistake. Those who support Trump, no matter how reluctantly, have crossed a moral boundary. They are standing with a leader who encourages prejudice and despises the weak….

 This is not even to mention Trump’s pledge to limit press freedom, or his malicious birtherism, or his dangerous vaccine skepticism, or his economic plans that would bring global recession, or his lack of relevant qualifications, or his temperament of brooding and bragging, egotism and self-pity, or his promise to emancipate the world from American leadership, or his accusation that Ted Cruz’s father was somehow involved with Lee Harvey Freaking Oswald.

It’s possible that many rank-and-file Republicans are conned and fail to notice how fake the reality star is. But many more clearly hate Clinton’s sincere progressivism more than Trump’s insincere conservatism. They act with a curiously Machiavellian calculus, rather than according to their professed Christian values.

But perhaps this isn’t surprisingly given the cowardice of their leaders. Much of the Republican leadership have already fallen into line behind Trump’s conservatism of convenience. While Clinton contends with the incessant buzzing of Crazy Bernie, Republicans have begun to march in lockstep. Instead of fighting for its principles – such as they are – its conservative champions and Christian soldiers have meekly surrendered in whole battalions, encircled less by the enemy than by fear.

With this in mind, Leon H Wolf of wrote of what he called “Vichy Republicans” in reference to French collaborators with the Nazis. Even before Trump’s victory, they ran “scampering with their tails between their legs to Vichy, and welcomed [him] into Paris. No point fighting for the future of the Republican party if it diminishes their chances of winning the next election, after all.” For these collaborators, the enemy of their enemy, not matter how evil or disingenuous, is their friend.

This is particularly rich for those who already denounced Trump as a liar, a demagogue, and an egoist. The worst of these, though perhaps the most inconsequential, is former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Years ago, Jindal told Republicans that they had to “stop being the stupid party,” before the Rhodes scholar embraced the most anti-intellectual aspects of conservativism himself in a transparent attempt to position himself to run for President.

You’ll be forgiven if you didn’t notice his candidacy. Few did. Desperate to find electoral traction and to avoid any discussion of his catastrophic performance as Governor, Jindal attacked Trump as early as last Fall, before anyone expected the billionaire to make it to the finish line. Trump, he said, “cannot be our next President.” As reported by The National Review, Jindal’s attack

was delivered in Trumpian style: he made fun of Trump, called him names, and all-but-laughed at him in a performance reminiscent of the way Trump himself has mocked the rest of the GOP field.

 “Narcissist,” “egomaniac,” “absurd,” “a carnival act,” “insecure,” “weak,” “dangerous,” “unstable,” “unserious,” “shallow,” “hothead,” “small,” “substance-free,” “power-hungry shark,” “egomaniacal madman”: Those were just a few of the names Jindal called Trump in his 10 minute speech …. “I want to say what everyone is thinking about Donald Trump but afraid to say,” Jindal said. “Everybody knows this is true.”

But once Trump, long after Jindal had dropped out of the primaries, had become the presumptive nominee, the Governor – and others – rushed to embrace him. Again, the fear of progressives and the fear of losing status in the new Trumpublican Party keeps the troops in line.

A few months ago, even earlier than Romney’s intervention, it briefly appeared as if a significant #NeverTrump resistance would develop. That is, a number of conservatives pledged to try to stop Trump and, if they failed, would refuse to assist him or vote for him. Lindsey Graham, another minor candidate for president, stated that “[t]he more you know about … Trump, the less likely you are to vote for him. The more you know about his business enterprises, the less successful he looks. The more you know about his political giving, the less Republican he looks.”

He suggested that the party should have fired The Donald earlier in the process. And focusing on both Trump’s policy and personal shortcomings, Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard noted that he couldn’t vote for Trump:

It's not clear that his mixed bag of motley policies would be superior to those of his Democratic opponent. He could well pick better Supreme Court justices, which is important; but he could well pursue a less sound foreign policy, which is also important. But policy is not the issue. Character is. It is clear that Donald Trump does not have the character to be president of the United States.

In a similar vein, conservative columnist Ross Douthat wrote that “[i]t would be possible to justify support for Trump if he merely promised a period of chaos for conservatism. But to support Trump for the presidency is to invite chaos upon the republic and the world. No policy goal, no court appointment, can justify such recklessness.” It’s unclear if the #NeverTrump guerrillas can make any impact. Both Graham and Kristol seemed to have wavered; when pressed earlier this month, the latter said “never say never.”

It can be difficult to admit, but Democrats have no absolute monopoly on political virtue. The Grand Old Party is the party of Honest Abe and Teddy Roosevelt, the Rough Rider and Trust Buster. It’s the party of Ike and numberless decent people and public servants.

Most of my family now belong to the party and some of my best friends are Republicans. Historically, members of the GOP were often more progressive than the Southern Democratic tradition in which I was raised. But, of course, Trump has no real interest either in policy or party. As Brooks put it, Trump is

epically unprepared to be president. He has no realistic policies, no advisers, no capacity to learn. His vast narcissism makes him a closed fortress. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and he’s uninterested in finding out. He insults the office Abraham Lincoln once occupied by running for it with less preparation than most of us would undertake to buy a sofa.

Let me be clear. I don’t want modern Republicans to govern and I think they bear significant responsibility for the situation we find ourselves in. But our democracy, our republic, needs them. In the long run, all Americans are better when we have at least two parties with reasonably clear and broadly reasonable public policies that allow us to hold our elected officials to account. To quote a contemporary politician, “there’s much more that unites us than divides us.” None of us needs a megalomaniac untroubled by untruth, unconcerned about consistency, and unbothered by violence.

Democrats will obviously do their part to keep Trump out of the White House. But saving the republic and the Republican Party from Trump demands an active Republican resistance. And it needs to be now. It may be too late already.

By Seán Patrick Donlan

Seán Patrick Donlan is a law professor at the University of the South Pacific School of Law.

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Bill Kristol David Brooks Donald Trump Editor's Picks Elections 2016 George Will Media Criticism