The GOP is chug­ging to­ward de­rail­ment

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Gerson

— Don­ald Trump be­gan Au­gust 2, 2016, no doubt, de­ter­mined to fol­low the ad­vice of fam­ily and ad­vis­ers to avoid fu­el­ing his own con­tro­ver­sies and fo­cus on Hil­lary Clin­ton’s man­i­fold fail­ures.

By the end of that day, the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee had con­tin­ued his fifth day of con­flict with a Gold Star fam­ily. He had re­fused to sup­port the re-elec­tion of the Repub­li­can speaker of the House and two sen­a­tors in races es­sen­tial to main­tain­ing GOP con­trol of the Se­nate. He had (strangely) urged Amer­i­cans to dump equities in their 401(k) plans. He had joked that he “al­ways wanted to get the Pur­ple Heart” — the chances of which would have been in­creased if he had not taken five de­fer­ments dur­ing the Viet­nam War. He had made a state­ment — “if there is not a bet­ter al­ter­na­tive, then you stay” — that seemed to dis­miss the grav­ity of work­place sex­ual ha­rass­ment.

Any of these would be judged a gaffe. Taken to­gether, in a sin­gle day,

WASH­ING­TON

they raise the prospect that Trump is be­ing driven by com­pul­sions that have noth­ing to do with pol­i­tics. It should now be ev­i­dent that Trump’s be­hav­ior as a can­di­date will not be changed (at least for long) by ap­peals to his ra­tio­nal self-in­ter­est, be­cause he is not in full con­trol of his im­pulses. This may be Trump be­ing Trump, but it is ut­terly ter­ri­fy­ing in a prospec­tive pres­i­dent.

The fond­est hope of reg­u­lar, ev­ery­day Repub­li­cans has been to keep their heads down, work to main­tain con­trol of the House and Se­nate, and hope the next three months pass quickly so that the re­build­ing of the party can com­mence. Now it is dawn­ing that three months of Trump — a rapid-fire loose can­non — may make keeping con­gres­sional con­trol im­pos­si­ble. It may, in fact, leave the national GOP in ru­ins, with the elec­toral earth salted among mi­nori­ties, women and the young.

The un­rav­el­ing of Trump’s sup­port has be­gun, and not just among mod­er­ates of the Meg Whit­man va­ri­ety. Be­fore back­track­ing, Trump’s vice pres­i­den­tial fi­nal­ist Newt Gin­grich ad­mit­ted that nei­ther Hil­lary Clin­ton nor Trump were “ac­cept­able” at the mo­ment. Even the syco­phan­tic Chris Christie dis­tanced him­self from Trump’s at­tacks on the Khan fam­ily: “It’s just in­ap­pro­pri­ate for us in this con­text to be crit­i­ciz­ing them, and I’m not go­ing to par­tic­i­pate in that.”

But is such dis­con­tent a pre­view of dra­matic de­fec­tions? If they come, they are likely to ar­rive in a rush, as they did in Au­gust 1974. When Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon’s “smok­ing gun” tape was re­vealed, the wall of Repub­li­can re­sis­tance to impeachment quickly col­lapsed. A con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion led by Sen. Barry Gold­wa­ter (who blamed him­self that he had not acted ear­lier) in­formed Nixon it was over. And though his wife and daugh­ters urged him to fight on, Nixon bowed to po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity.

In Trump’s case, we are not deal­ing with crim­i­nal­ity but with tem­per­a­ment, which is not less im­por­tant. To quote my­self from a Jan­uary col­umn: We are wit­ness­ing what hap­pens when a nar­cis­sist who thinks he is at the cen­ter of the uni­verse is ac­tu­ally placed at the cen­ter of the uni­verse. Trump’s po­lit­i­cal judg­ments seem mostly based on how oth­ers view him, mak­ing Vladimir Putin a friend and Paul Ryan an en­emy. On pol­icy, Trump claims to know more than the ex­perts while dis­play­ing stun­ning ig­no­rance. He lies with dis­turb­ing ease. He seems to lack the gene for em­pa­thy.

If Repub­li­can lead­ers be­lieve these things to be true, they should not con­tinue to sup­port Trump for pres­i­dent. I sus­pect, how­ever, that a prin­ci­pled stand will be­come more at­trac­tive if Trump de­clines fur­ther and con­sis­tently in the polls. In­tegrity is more re­li­able with the sup­port of in­ter­est.

It is hard to imag­ine that a meet­ing with party elders in which they urge Trump to re­nounce his nom­i­na­tion would end well. Any friend bring­ing such a mes­sage to Trump would im­me­di­ately be cat­e­go­rized an en­emy. And Trump’s ador­ing, over­flow crowds must pro­vide him with in­tox­i­cat­ing en­cour­age­ment.

Trump, how­ever, is not the only one be­ing tested. We have seen that Trump is a sadist; now we de­ter­mine if Repub­li­cans are masochists. On the cur­rent course, Reince Priebus will be judged the worst GOP party chair­man in his­tory. On the cur­rent course, Ryan will be dis­cred­ited as a po­lit­i­cal and moral leader. On the cur­rent course, our chil­dren will look back in con­fu­sion and con­tempt, ask­ing: How did you al­low such a man to get so close to such an of­fice?

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

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