Why did it take Republicans so long to realize Donald Trump is a mortal threat to their party? Since the release on Friday of a 2005 video showing Trump boasting about women in vulgar terms (to put it mildly), Republicans politicians and party officials have been scrambling to disavow him.
The stampede was an odd thing to see after so much hand-wringing over Trump this election cycle. Beginning Friday, one Republican after another withdrew support for Trump. It began with Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz. “I’m out,” he said. “I can no longer in good conscience endorse this person for president. It is some of the most abhorrent and offensive comments that you can possibly imagine.” (During the debate Sunday night, Trump repeatedly dismissed his comments as “locker room talk,” of which he’s embarrassed. He denied that he’d ever assaulted women.)
As the weekend wore on, the list of names grew. Republicans who had publicly supported Trump rescinded their endorsement. Those who hadn’t endorsed him, like Utah Sen. Mike Lee, called on Trump to step aside and “allow someone else to carry the banner.” South Dakota’s John Thune, the third-ranking GOP senator, said on Twitter, “Trump should withdraw and Mike Pence should be our nominee effective immediately.” Sen. Cory Gardner said he would write-in his vote for Pence even if Trump doesn’t drop out.
By Saturday evening, 54 GOP congressmen, senators, and governors had come out in opposition to Trump. Dozens who had previously supported him rescinded their endorsements. The disavowals came so fast a University of Chicago postdoc fellow put together a Google doc to keep track of them. As of this writing, the list was still growing.
Trump Was Never Right for the GOP
They aren’t wrong, they’re just late. Perhaps they were thinking of a line attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Be with a leader when he is right, stay with him when he is still right, leave him when he is wrong.”
Good advice, but the trouble is that Trump was never right. He was wrong from day one, for the GOP and for the country. It’s a good thing so many Republicans are leaving him, but it’s too little, too late. With less than 30 days until the election, it doesn’t do much good now to declare that your nominee is a lecherous old misogynist who’s unfit for office.
Republicans should have done that back in July before their national convention, when it still had a principled ring to it. Now, it smacks of sheer opportunism. We didn’t learn anything new about Trump from that recording. All that’s changed is this: Republicans know they can’t win with this guy, and the only thing to do now is scramble for the lifeboats in a last-ditch effort to save themselves.
At the outset of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, I wrote that nominating Trump would mark the end of the GOP as we know it. With Trump at the top of the ticket, the party would be Republican in name only, and principled conservatives should either break with the GOP or immediately set about reforming it: “To do that, they need to purge the ranks of the emerging Trump GOP. All those who have thrown in their lot with an anti-free-trade, lifelong Democrat with no apparent understanding of the Constitution should not have a future in the party. Everyone who proved they were more interested in power than principle should be exiled.”
In retrospect, that sounds rather harsh. There’s a difference, after all, between begrudgingly accepting your party’s nominee and eagerly working to elevate and defend that nominee at all costs. Perhaps those who came aboard the Trump train kicking and screaming can survive this. Perhaps.
Of course, there are plenty of others who embraced Trump because they thought it would ensure their political survival. Now they don’t, and they want to bail. Political survival is an understandable instinct. No one wants to be associated with the guy who thinks it’s okay to grab a woman’s crotch without asking. Plus, there’s Congress to think about. If Trump is going down, Republicans don’t want their majorities in the House and Senate to go with him.
If You Suddenly Have a Problem, You’re Too Late
But what about the millions of voters who still support Trump, no matter what he says? House Speaker Paul Ryan was greeted with a mix of cheers and boos in his own district at an event over the weekend that both Trump and Pence were slated to attend. Ryan disinvited Trump, saying he was “sickened” by the nominee’s comments caught on tape. But while Ryan spoke, some in the audience jeered at him, yelling, “Shame on you!” and “Donald Trump!”
It might be that most GOP voters are not as disgusted with Trump as their politicians are. A hastily conducted Politico/Morning Consult poll over the weekend showed just 39 percent of GOP voters thought Trump should withdraw from the race, while 74 percent said Republican Party leaders should continue to support the nominee.
For politicians who have bitten the bullet and endorsed Trump, disowning him now risks fierce backlash from Trump supporters. That’s understandable. Consider poor Ted Cruz. Having changed his mind about Trump just weeks ago, endorsing him under intense pressure from donors and GOP officials, Cruz has no good options now. He is reviled by both sides, and if he changes his mind again he will be finished. He has to stick with Trump no matter what fresh horrors come to light.
The fact is, if you’re a GOP officeholder and you didn’t realize until this past weekend that Trump isn’t fit to be president, you’ve done a great disservice to voters. You should have known better. The time to have denounced Trump was months ago, when it mattered, and if you missed it, you missed it. The best you can do now is apologize and hope for the best.
For those Republicans who never endorsed Trump, this weekend was a bittersweet vindication. Their party might be coming apart at the seams, but they can still look voters in eye when this is all over and talk about conservative principles with a straight face. They will be the ones to rebuild the party after Trump. Many of the others won’t make it, no matter how madly they scramble. There are only so many lifeboats on the Titanic. But there are plenty of deck chairs to rearrange.