Time for GOP to dis­own Trump

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - Michael Ger­son

— When it comes to the chaotic, flail­ing, floun­der­ing Trump cam­paign, many se­nior Repub­li­cans are in a state of panic. Will this be­come a state of re­volt?

“If the next few weeks are any­thing like the last two,” a se­nior GOP of­fi­cial told me, “any­thing could hap­pen at the con­ven­tion.” Don­ald Trump’s re­sponse to the Or­lando at­tack — en­cour­ag­ing reli­gious big­otry and im­ply­ing that Pres­i­dent Obama might be a se­cret ji­hadi — con­firmed the worst Repub­li­can fear: that Trump will re­main Trump.

With this recog­ni­tion has come the re­al­iza­tion that Trump has wasted the seven weeks since be­com­ing the pre­sump­tive nom­i­nee— a pe­riod in which Democrats were di­vided and vul­ner­a­ble. How did he fill the va­cant air? He raised the pos­si­bil­ity that Ted Cruz’s fa­ther might be im­pli­cated in the as­sas­si­na­tion of JFK; that Hil­lary Clin­ton might have been in­volved in the death of Vince Foster; that a fed­eral judge, pre­sid­ing over a case against Trump Uni­ver­sity, should be dis­qual­i­fied by his eth­nic­ity; and that Amer­i­can sol­diers in Iraq were liv­ing large off lar­ceny.

By the end of this string of state­ments, one of Trump’s strong­est con­gres­sional prox­ies, Rep. Dun­can Hunter, was re­duced to ar­gu­ing: “I think what he says and what he’ll do are two dif­fer­ent things.” Repub­li­cans, in essence, should be re­as­sured by their nom­i­nee’s du­plic­ity.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell have been will­ing to crit­i­cize Trump, but not to un-en­dorse him. Prac­ti­cally, this means that noth­ing — noth­ing — Trump says could for­feit their sup­port. The pre­sump­tive nom­i­nee has al­ready raised the prospect that his op­po­nent is a mur­derer and that the pres­i­dent is a traitor. Not, ev­i­dently, suf­fi­cient provo­ca­tions. Ryan and McCon­nell have de­cided that in or­der to re­main lead­ers they must avoid pro­vid­ing lead­er­ship.

But what might change things in the GOP is the po­lit­i­cal dis­as­ter that now ap­pears in the off­ing. Be­neath Trump’s his­tor­i­cally low ap­proval rat­ings — 29 per­cent in a re­cent Wash­ing­ton Post/ ABC News sur­vey — is an even more dis­turb­ing devel­op­ment. Af­ter se­cur­ing the nom­i­na­tion, Trump’s sup­port among Repub­li­cans rose, in many polls, to the mid-80s — not spec­tac­u­larly good, but an in­di­ca­tion that the GOP was ral­ly­ing. In re­cent polls, Trump’s Repub­li­can sup­port has dropped to be­tween 70 per­cent and 80 per­cent. Along this trend, a de­ci­sive Demo­cratic vic­tory might sweep away the House and Sen­ate. If Repub­li­can politi­cians be­gin to see this dy­namic in their own polling, many will sud­denly re­dis­cover their con­sciences and aban­don Trump.

Trump’s whole cam­paign now con­sists of a pa­thetic irony. He ran at­tack­ing the Repub­li­can “es­tab­lish­ment” at ev­ery turn. Now, since he has ne­glected to con­struct his own na­tional cam­paign, he is com­pletely de­pen­dent on the “es­tab­lish­ment” to pro­vide his po­lit­i­cal ground game. First he vil­i­fies the GOP, then com­plains that it lacks en­thu­si­asm for his cause.

Repub­li­can con­ven­tion del­e­gates are so­phis­ti­cated enough to see what is hap­pen­ing. The Trump cam­paign claims to be lean; in most of the coun­try, in­clud­ing the bat­tle­ground states, it is nonex­is­tent. Trump of­fers his lead­er­ship as the so­lu­tion to ev­ery prob­lem, yet pre­sides over a cam­paign or­ga­ni­za­tion that is a squab­bling, par­a­lyzed am­a­teur hour. Del­e­gates know that, even if Trump can boost his poll numbers, he can­not mag­i­cally cre­ate a vi­able, na­tional cam­paign struc­ture.

If a re­volt emerges, it will hap­pen first in the GOP con­ven­tion rules com­mit­tee — which meets a week be­fore the con­ven­tion and is stacked with of­fi­cials more loyal to the party than to Trump. The sim­plest move would be to re­quire a su­per­ma­jor­ity to se­lect a nom­i­nee — an ap­proach taken by some Repub­li­can state con­ven­tions in or­der to avoid the choice of badly wounded can­di­dates. The goal should be a truly open con­ven­tion, which does not choose any­one Trump has al­ready beaten.

Trump’s re­sponse to his swift po­lit­i­cal de­cline has been to con­tinue his pri­mary cam­paign — ac­cus­ing Jeb Bush of sud­denly re­cov­er­ing the en­ergy to plot against him. This com­fort­able at­tack makes sense, given that Trump has suc­ceeded by ap­peal­ing to a niche mar­ket that is im­pressed by his in­stinc­tive na­tivism and Kar­dashian-like celebrity. So far, the niche can­di­date has failed to make the tran­si­tion to a na­tional mes­sage. And given the ado­ra­tion and en­thu­si­asm of his crowds (one re­cently chant­ing: “Build a wall and kill them all!”), Trump has no emo­tional mo­ti­va­tion to change di­rec­tion, what­ever the polls might say.

A del­e­gate re­volt would be a messy spec­ta­cle, with lit­tle hope of suc­ceed­ing un­less Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus even­tu­ally break with Trump. But it is now the only op­tion con­sis­tent with Repub­li­can in­ter­ests and honor.

Michael Ger­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@ wash­post.com.

WASH­ING­TON

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