The Trump phenomenon is presenting Republicans with one of those once in a lifetime gut checks — do you fall in line behind someone who is obviously unfit for the office of president or do you tell the truth as you see it and risk the disapprobation of your peers and the possible banishment to political Siberia? Even though the truth of the matter is obvious, I don't think it's fair to say that it would be easy for anyone. To lose your place in the political ecosystem can be emotionally painful and professional very risky. The path of least resistance is to go with the flow. If Trump loses you will have a lot of company. If he wins, well, you'll have to live with your own conscience as to the consequences. But either way, the people who stood against him will always be resented for their courage by those who went along.
There are mainstream Republicans who are opting out, more than people may realize. The Stop Trump Movement boasts some major players in the GOP scene, people like Mitt Romney, George Will, Erick Erickson, David Brooks and Glenn Beck to name just a few. Some are attempting to salvage their futures by contending that Trump is unacceptable only because he is a traitor to conservatism, which he is in some ways although that is hardly the primary case against him. The more valiant among them take the threat of Trump seriously and are willing to admit the truth, such as Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal who told Fareed Zakaria over the weekend:
I most certainly will not vote for Donald Trump. I will vote for the least left wing opponent to Donald Trump and I will want to make a vote that will make sure he is the biggest loser in presidential history since Alf Landon or going back further. It's important that Donald Trump and what he represents, this "ethnic conservatism or populism" be so decisively rebuked that the Republican party and Republican voters will forever learn their lesson that they cannot nominate a man so manifestly unqualified to be president in any way shape or form.
Stephens is a traditional ideological conservative who could rail against Trump's defense of Social Security or his anti-free trade tirades if he chose to. But except for a passing reference to "populism" Stephens indicts Trump on the right grounds: his manifest unfitness for the job. Finally, here's something that liberals and conservatives can agree upon.
There are a few conservatives who saw the disintegration of their party coming for quite a while, notably conservative writer and former Bush speechwriter David Frum who has been committing apostasy for several years now. He wrote a thought provoking piece for The Atlantic this week in which he documents how Donald Trump has broken seven standards and norms of behavior that make it possible for democracy to function.
The first broken norm is the most obvious. The idea that America's presidents should behave with maturity and self-restraint is a standard that most of us take for granted. Sure, they have all had different personalities but basic respect for the office and basic civility has been a given. For instance, presidential candidates have not, up until now, called their rivals pussies on the stump. Frum refers to Mitt Romney's righteous rant against Trump from several months ago in which he said, "think of Donald Trump's personal qualities, the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third grade theatrics..." That's Trump to a T. And until now that would not have been a constellation of personality characteristics that one would think of as presidential.
He next points out Trump's unusual untrustworthiness making a very important point in the process. He notes that the GOP base holds establishment leaders in contempt for their alleged failure to fulfill the mandate they were given when they won a majority in the two midterm elections. Frum writes:
As one unfriendly critic noted, the Republican rank-and-file weren’t exactly innocent victims of elite deception. Republican voters … wanted everything, and, after all, GOP leaders promised them that it was possible—even though those same leaders knew it was not.
Place the blame for that failure where you will, however, the results were glaring: radical Republican rejection of the trustworthiness of their leaders—all their leaders.What, then, was one liar more—especially if that liar were more exciting than the others, more willing to say at least some of the things that Republicans wanted said?
They are responding to a man who says:
“Politicians have used you and stolen your votes. They have given you nothing. I will give you everything. I will give you what you’ve been looking for for 50 years. I’m the only one.”
The next norm that's been broken is "the expectation that a potential president should possess deep—or at least adequate—knowledge of public affairs." It goes without saying that Donald Trump winning the GOP nomination proves that this is no longer considered necessary by a majority of Republican voters. He is, as was pointed out above, manifestly unqualified and has absolutely no intention of learning anything because he doesn't need to.
Frum next points out that the Republican ideological standard has completely evaporated which is of greater concern for conservatives than the rest of us but his analysis of how this happened is quite interesting:
The ideology guardrail snapped because so much of the ideology itself had long since ceased to be relevant to the lives of so many Republican primary voters. Instead of a political program, conservatism had become an individual identity. What this meant, for politicians, was that the measure of your “conservatism” stopped being the measures you passed in office—and became much more a matter of style, affect, and manner.
No one exemplified this better than Frum's old boss George W. Bush, the man everyone celebrated as presidential perfection because he was the kind of guy you wanted to have a beer with. But Trump has proved that ideology no longer matters at all to most Republicans, which does come as something of a surprise. Even the social conservatives seem to have completely given up the ghost.
Another shattered norm, and it's a big one, is the blithe acceptance of Trump's total lack of coherent national security worldview. The fact that he is not a familiar neocon or a practitioner of Real Politic would be disorienting for Republicans regardless, but calling his turn to belligerent nationalism "America First" is downright hallucinatory.
Frum believes Trump has broken the norm against intolerance and it's true that his crusade against "political correctness" and the open racism and religious bigotry are at levels we haven't seen in decades. After surveying all the data which shows that the white ethnic tribalism we're seeing on the right at the moment is a result of backlash against changing demographics, he writes:
Trump is running not to be president of all Americans, but to be the clan leader of white Americans. Those white Americans who respond to his message hear his abusive comments, not as evidence of his unfitness for office, but as proof of his commitment to their tribe.
Finally, Frum bemoans the harsh partisanship that leads otherwise normal people like Marco Rubio, after having denounced Trump for months as a vulgar con man, cozy up to Trump using the ludicrous rationale that he's "even more scared about her [Clinton] being in control of the U.S. government." That's ridiculous and on some level Rubio knows this. Clinton is fully in the mainstream of American politics along with Barack Obama, both Bushes and Bill Clinton. Trump is not. But as is their wont, the right wing is projecting their own extreme deviation from the norm on to their opposition and their leaders are dutifully following along.
Frum's trying to figure all this out and he's digging deeply to do it. In fact, he's been doing this for some time as one of the few insiders who have been clear-eyed about the destruction of the conservative movement and the Republican Party over the past few years even before the appearance of Donald Trump. And he's right about all of this. This disconcerting breaking of the norms that make democratic governance possible has reached a critical stage.
What started with the cynical propaganda projects of Newt Gingrich to the '90s witchhunts and the dubious tactics of the long election of 2000 metastasized into the Tea Party which was born out of a belief that Barack Obama was an illegitimate president and anything he proposed was therefore invalid. Donald Trump was in the middle of that as the King of the Birthers, the man who mainstreamed the formerly fringe conspiracy theory that the president wasn't born in America. And now that man is the Republican nominee for president.
In order for democracy to function you cannot depend entirely on the laws to enforce it. It requires a common understanding and acceptance of the rules and norms developed over a long period that guarantee a certain level of civilized interaction. We're losing them and the consequences could be very serious. Trump may lose this election and there will be some kind of reset. But even if he does, these rules and norms are very difficult to put back in place once they've been tossed aside. It may not happen, which raises the rather chilling question of what will be left in his wake.