Trump has se­ri­ous prob­lem in sub­urbs

Colum­nist E.J. Dionne as­sesses the po­ten­tial im­pact of the can­di­date's per­for­mance in Mon­day's de­bate.

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - FRONT PAGE -

Don­ald Trump’s near melt­down in Mon­day’s de­bate surely gave queasy stom­achs to Repub­li­cans who have bowed be­fore his can­di­dacy de­spite their bet­ter judg­ments. Trump threat­ens to give con­ser­va­tive ap­peasers a very bad name.

Let it be said that at least some in the party will be able to stand proudly af­ter this aw­ful elec­tion is over. We’re wit­ness­ing real courage among those mem­bers of the party of Lin­coln will­ing to say openly how gen­uinely dan­ger­ous a Trump pres­i­dency would be.

For those whose liveli­hoods de­pend on build­ing big au­di­ences among pro-Trump rankand-file con­ser­va­tives (think radio talk show hosts and com­men­ta­tors of var­i­ous kinds), join­ing the #Nev­erTrump camp car­ries real risks. For lib­er­als, op­pos­ing Trump is about the eas­i­est thing in the world, so we should honor the dar­ing of our tem­po­rary comrades.

Un­for­tu­nately, the Never Trumpers are a mi­nor­ity on the right. More typ­i­cal are House Speaker Paul Ryan and Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell, the most prom­i­nent among the GOP con­tor­tion artists who are hedg­ing their bets.

They send sig­nals they know how ridicu­lous and big­oted Trump is, call­ing out this or that state­ment when it’s con­ve­nient to do so. But they en­dorse him any­way to save their down-ticket candidates while hop­ing that, should he lose, they can curry fa­vor later with the Trump wing of the party.

They have made an­other bet as well: If Trump were to win, they be­lieve he has so lit­tle in­ter­est in pol­icy that he would sign what­ever bills a con­ser­va­tive Congress put be­fore him. Trump, they hope, would be quite con­tent just oc­cu­py­ing a nice piece of real es­tate on Penn­syl­va­nia Av­enue to go with the one, as he men­tioned on Mon­day, that he’s pre­sid­ing over just down the street.

Trump has en­cour­aged this view. He may be un­pres­i­den­tial, but he is con­ver­sant in mak­ing deals and find­ing the other side’s weak spot. He knows the only thing many con­ser­va­tive politi­cians and in­ter­est groups truly care about are big tax cuts for the rich. So he let sup­ply-side con­ser­va­tives write him a tax plan. Buy­ing the White House by giv­ing away fu­ture fed­eral rev­enues is clas­sic Trump: us­ing other peo­ple’s money to se­cure his own ends. Be­sides, he’s now told us, he thinks it’s “smart” for wealthy peo­ple not to pay taxes.

It’s a cozy ar­range­ment, and en­tirely ra­tional as far as it goes. But for it to work, Trump has to keep him­self un­der some con­trol, becoming suf­fi­ciently con­ven­tional not to cause too much heart­burn to the es­tab­lish­men­tar­i­ans. If he did it right, he might even win. But at the least, his job is to run well enough to give the Repub­li­cans a chance to hold the Se­nate as well as the House.

Trump showed on Mon­day that he may not keep his part of the deal, ei­ther be­cause he doesn’t want to or be­cause he’s in­ca­pable of it. And the risk for the party is high. A Trump who ex­udes sex­ism, traf­fics in racism, ex­hibits a res­o­lute in­dif­fer­ence to facts and demon­strates an in­abil­ity to do his home­work will turn off bet­ter-ed­u­cated sub­ur­ban vot­ers with­out whom Repub­li­cans can­not build their ma­jori­ties. If more nor­mal Repub­li­can politi­cians con­tinue to col­lude with Trump, th­ese vot­ers could turn against the whole ticket.

There’s prece­dent, and Mas­sachusetts (be­cause it’s now seen as so re­li­ably Demo­cratic in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions) is a prime ex­am­ple of how bad things can get for Repub­li­cans. The state was at the fore­front of a long-term trend: the steady move­ment of mod­er­ate sub­ur­ban­ites, par­tic­u­larly in the North­east, away from the Repub­li­can Party. For many of them, Barry Gold­wa­ter’s rightwing can­di­dacy in 1964 sealed the deal.

Take the leafy town of Lex­ing­ton, sim­i­lar in its vot­ing pat­terns to sur­round­ing ar­eas. In 1956, Lex­ing­ton gave 76 per­cent of its votes to Dwight Eisen­hower. In 1960, it re­sisted home state fa­vorite John F. Kennedy; Richard Nixon won it with 57 per­cent. But in 1964, Gold­wa­ter re­ceived just 31 per­cent of Lex­ing­ton’s votes. He was sim­ply too ex­treme for sober, old-fash­ioned Repub­li­cans. Po­lit­i­cally, Mas­sachusetts has never been the same since.

Trump is not yet in Gold­wa­ter ter­ri­tory, and might never get there. But un­less The Don­ald of the first de­bate gives way to a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ver­sion, he threat­ens to cre­ate an­other GOP sub­ur­ban catas­tro­phe pretty much ev­ery­where out­side the Deep South. If Trump doesn’t ad­just, many of the party’s en­ablers will soon have to re­al­ize that their best sur­vival strat­egy is to run as far away from him as pos­si­ble.

E.J. Dionne is syn­di­cated by The Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group.

EJ Dionne Colum­nist

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