A Trumpian mo­ment of truth

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - EJ Dionne Colum­nist E.J. Dionne’s email ad­dress is ej­dionne@wash­post.com. Twit­ter: @EJ­Dionne.

What is the Repub­li­can Party? Sud­denly, this has be­come one of the cen­tral ques­tions of the 2016 cam­paign. It’s not sim­ply a mat­ter of whether the GOP is the party of Don­ald Trump or the party of Paul Ryan. It is also an is­sue of whether Repub­li­can con­gres­sional lead­ers have any con­nec­tion with the seething grass roots whose anger they stoked dur­ing the Obama years but al­ways hoped to con­tain. Trump is the prod­uct of their colos­sal mis­cal­cu­la­tions.

And then there are the ru­mi­na­tions of mil­lions of quiet Repub­li­cans — lo­cal busi­ness peo­ple and doc­tors and lawyers and coaches and teach­ers. They are look­ing on as the political in­sti­tu­tion to which they have long been loyal is re­fash­ioned into a house of bizarre hor­rors so ut­terly dis­tant from their sober, com­mu­nity-minded and, in the truest sense of the word, con­ser­va­tive ap­proach to life.

This elec­tion has been trans­formed. Its tra­jec­tory will now be di­vided be­tween Be­fore the Video (BV) and Af­ter the Video (AV). Hil­lary Clin­ton was al­ways likely to win, but BV, it seemed she would have to scratch out a nor­mal, and per­haps even nar­row, vic­tory. AV, Repub­li­cans all the way down the ticket are run­ning for their lives. Clin­ton has al­ready started to di­vert some of her rhetor­i­cal en­ergy to help­ing Democrats in Se­nate and House races, and Demo­cratic money sources are mov­ing to try to make Nov. 8 a day of vic­tory at all lev­els.

Tak­ing con­trol of the Se­nate is well within the Democrats’ reach. Win­ning the 30 seats they need in the House is still a long shot be­cause of par­ti­san ger­ry­man­ders and the con­cen­tra­tion of Demo­cratic votes in big cities. Still, the fact that the pos­si­bil­ity is even be­ing dis­cussed is a sea change, and the suc­cess of many of those ger­ry­man­ders for the GOP de­pended on large sub­ur­ban mar­gins. It is pre­cisely sub­ur­ban vot­ers, Repub­li­can and in­de­pen­dent, who are Trump’s neme­sis.

And for those run­ning on the ticket headed by Trump, there are no good op­tions. Logic would dic­tate aban­don­ing him, and that’s what the party’s can­di­dates did in droves fol­low­ing the video’s re­lease. But Trump has en­gen­dered deep loy­al­ties among core Repub­li­can vot­ers, and dump­ing him car­ries a price — a price that Trump was happy to raise sky high.

His un­load­ing on Ryan af­ter the House speaker said he would no longer de­fend or cam­paign with Trump un­der­scored that there is no mid­dle ground. Ryan did not with­draw his en­dorse­ment, af­ter all. But if you are not wholly with Trump, you are against him.

Trump’s fi­asco, in the mean­time, has eased co­or­di­na­tion prob­lems on the Demo­cratic side. A top Demo­cratic cam­paign of­fi­cial said there had been some ten­sion ear­lier in the year over Clin­ton’s fo­cus on cast­ing Trump as uniquely ill-fit for the pres­i­dency. Down­bal­lot Democrats wor­ried that a nar­row fo­cus on Trump’s de­fi­cien­cies might not be help­ful to the rest of the party.

Now, both Demo­cratic can­di­dates and the Clin­ton camp are united in call­ing out Repub­li­cans who have ei­ther en­dorsed Trump or re­fused to dis­own him. This cre­ates pres­sure for vul­ner­a­ble Repub­li­cans to de­fect, which helps Clin­ton, but also ties the en­tire Repub­li­can ticket to Trump, which helps her party’s Se­nate and House can­di­dates. There is, said the Demo­cratic of­fi­cial, “no lack of har­mony.”

For years, Repub­li­cans man­aged an ex­cep­tional ac­ro­batic act: to mo­bi­lize rightwing pop­ulist anger and white work­ing-class vot­ers be­hind a pro­gram whose ben­e­fits flowed to the eco­nomic elites. The op­er­a­tion was sup­ported by large ex­pen­di­tures from the very rich. The as­sump­tion was al­ways that the base would get the noise and the elites would get the pol­icy.

Now the noise is deaf­en­ing, a dan­ger­ous and pro­foundly flawed man leads the party, and its can­di­dates can­not move one way or the other with­out fall­ing off the wire. No one ex­pected an im­plo­sion this spec­tac­u­lar.

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