As house gets de­mol­ished, GOP lead­ers stay in­side

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Ger­son

— In the in­ter­est of fair­ness, I wish to raise an is­sue on which Don­ald Trump has been con­sis­tently and re­sound­ingly right: The Repub­li­can Party is ut­terly pa­thetic.

Dur­ing a decade of com­men­tary, and in a ca­reer of gov­ern­ment ser­vice be­fore that, I have of­ten ar­gued that the GOP is bet­ter than its lib­eral stereo­types. It is a case I can no longer make, at least when it comes to pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics.

The Trump as­cen­dency is the tri­umph of anti-rea­son — of birtherism, of vac­cine de­nial­ism, of sug­ges­tions that Jus­tice An­tonin Scalia was smoth­ered with a pil­low and

WASH­ING­TON

that Hil­lary Clin­ton may have been in­volved in the death of Vince Fos­ter. It is the tri­umph of na­tivism — of a po­lit­i­cal ap­peal based on ha­tred against mi­grants and Mus­lims. It is the tri­umph of white na­tion­al­ism, which has moved in­ward from the fringes of Repub­li­can pol­i­tics. It is the tri­umph of misog­yny, demon­strated with words that re­quire a dis­in­fec­tant shower af­ter hear­ing. It is the tri­umph of au­thor­i­tar­ian im­pulses. Since the Con­sti­tu­tion is “bro­ken,” ar­gues Maine Gov. Paul LePage, “we need a Don­ald Trump to show some au­thor­i­tar­ian power in our coun­try.”

Trump has made the party a laugh­ing­stock among the young, a toxic brand among mi­nori­ties, an of­fense to many women, a source of worry among Amer­i­can al­lies and alarm among na­tional se­cu­rity pro­fes­sion­als. And this was be­fore Trump pro­nounced him­self un­shack­led from the style-cramp­ing ex­pec­ta­tions of his es­tab­lish­ment Repub­li­can cap­tors. The main use of his newly found free­dom has been to at­tack GOP lead­ers. Speaker Paul Ryan has au­thored “bad bud­gets.” In what way? They were “very, very bad bud­gets,” Trump elu­ci­dated. He “wouldn’t want to be in a fox­hole” with Sen. John McCain — which pre­sum­ably was the point of his five Viet­nam de­fer­ments.

Steve Ban­non, the CEO of Trump’s cam­paign, once said, “What we need to do is bitch­slap the Repub­li­can Party.” The lift, it might be said, of a driv­ing dream. And how has the ob­ject of this con­tempt re­sponded? It is supine. It is docile. It licks the hand that beats it.

Trump can hardly main­tain, for even five min­utes, the pose of apol­ogy for preda­tory and abu­sive lan­guage against women be­fore dis­miss­ing it as “salty lan­guage” or the equiv­a­lent of a “sneeze.” Yet Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee Chair­man Reince Priebus calls his apol­ogy “heart­felt,” a de­scrip­tion he must know to be false. And run­ning-mate Mike Pence goes fur­ther, urg­ing evan­gel­i­cals to ac­cept Trump’s “apol­ogy” be­cause they are re­quired to be­lieve in “grace and for­give­ness.” Pence is seek­ing the­o­log­i­cal cover for cru­elty and po­lit­i­cal cyn­i­cism. This is nigh to blas­phemy.

There is also a group of Repub­li­cans who un­en­dorsed Trump af­ter the most re­cent taped ev­i­dence of misog­yny, only to with­draw their un­en­dorse­ments un­der pres­sure. It is hard to se­cure sci­en­tific proof of a politi­cian be­tray­ing his or her con­science for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons, but this comes pretty close. And the po­si­tion of Ryan — re­fus­ing to de­fend Trump any damn longer but not un­en­dors­ing him — is not much bet­ter. His trans­par­ent dis­gust for Trump has be­come a self-in­dict­ment.

This much is clear: Repub­li­can lead­ers of­fered no ef­fec­tive re­sis­tance to the ide­o­log­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal de­mo­li­tion of their party. Which may, in the worst case, give George W. Bush the dis­tinc­tion of be­ing the last Repub­li­can pres­i­dent.

Trump, it ap­pears, has ceased to se­ri­ously pur­sue that of­fice, us­ing Amer­i­can democ­racy to work out his in­ner demons or per­haps to po­si­tion his brand. And he — em­ploy­ing con­spir­acy the­o­ries and rented spokes­men — may well take the coun­try down a post-elec­tion rab­bit hole by ques­tion­ing the le­git­i­macy of what he is al­ready call­ing a “rigged sys­tem” and “a to­tal fix job.”

But as­sum­ing Trump is one of Amer­i­can his­tory’s big­gest losers — his di­rec­tion, though not yet his destiny — it will be more dif­fi­cult for him to make the charge of loser­hood against oth­ers. And his con­spir­a­to­rial, self­serv­ing at­tacks on our con­sti­tu­tional or­der may seem like spray­ing graf­fiti on the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial. Mas­sive elec­toral re­pu­di­a­tion might speak a lan­guage that Repub­li­can lead­ers fi­nally un­der­stand, af­ter prov­ing them­selves un­able to learn the strange tongues of con­vic­tion and courage. Maybe they will even be ashamed of them­selves, as they should be.

This would set the stage for the re­cov­ery of a hope­ful cen­ter-right con­ser­vatism that sees pol­i­tics as some­thing no­bler than scalp-hunt­ing — a pol­i­tics that be­gins with grat­i­tude for our na­tional bless­ings and views Amer­ica’s flaws and fail­ures as oc­ca­sions for com­mon pur­pose. This task, how­ever, will start from scratch. A build­ing on a ruin.

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

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