Wouldn’t you know it, Donald Trump has finally done said something that everyone – except his few million supporters – finds morally reprehensible, unhinged, un-American, deeply bigoted, fascistic, contrary to our values, against everything we stand for, &c, as well as disqualifying, racist and unconstitutional. His dramatic call to keep Muslims from entering the United States undermines national security, puts our soldiers and diplomats in danger, alienates the Muslim communities we need to work with to defeat terrorists, and plays into the hands of ISIS. All this is apt and accurate as far as it goes, and it is good to see quite a bit of it coming from Republicans who have been complicit in enabling their party’s slide past the rightmost fringe of reality. However, this is a moment far more profound than a few tweets or statements can address. For the Republican Party, it is a test of character. Is the party of Lincoln still willing to accept Donald Trump as its Presidential nominee if he prevails through the primary process? Republican leaders and Presidential candidates have repeatedly been asked the question, and have either answered in the affirmative (Ryan and McConnell) or simply scurried away (e.g., Priebus and Cruz). But the question will not go away. If Trump is indeed a fascist, as the quickly developing consensus from Stephanopoulos to Krauthammer seems to indicate, is the Republican Party willing to own him, and therefore become the first major fascist party in American history? It is an issue of character over politics. The Party has only two choices at this point: Either disown Trump based on his views now and save the Party, or let him go on and risk the f-label. The “strategy” seems to be to let him go on for now and hope that he will disappear of his own accord. That is probably a vain hope, and the consequence of this denial may well be an infinitely worse situation in a few months, with brickbats flying at the Republican convention in Cleveland, plus incalculable damage to the Party’s image. However, disowning Trump now will almost certainly result in the Republicans losing the 2016 Presidential election. Most likely, a jilted Trump will run as an independent and siphon away the most energized part of the Republican voter base. Or he may sulk off in a huff, leaving behind millions of furious supporters who will not vote in 2016 out of anger. Both scenarios spell disaster for the Republicans, but which path will they take?
In spite of my utter lack of faith in the character of the modern Republican Party, I believe they that will eventually cut Trump off – perhaps sooner rather than later. If it isn’t his latest remark about excluding Muslims, it will be his next remark that will be even more outrageous. And if anyone thinks that Trump has reached the limit of his outrageousness now, I have a tall tower at 725 5th Ave, New York, NY to sell you! The pressure on Reince Priebus and co. from the media and other Republicans running in 2016 will grow so much that they will be forced to dissociate the Party from Trump – with the aforementioned consequences. If Trump does run an independent campaign, he will lose, as will the Republican nominee, and Hillary Rodham Clinton will return in triumph to the White House. The only scenario in which Trump could actually win is if other Farooks and Tashfeens decide to perpetrate fresh horrors against innocent people. Then all bets are off. Perhaps that’s what Trump is counting on.
It is good to remember that the Democratic Party too faced a similar moment once on an even more important issue – equal rights for African-Americans. When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ending Jim Crow laws in the South, he famously – though perhaps apocryphally – said that this would cause the Democratic Party to lose the South for a generation. But Johnson did not let this political calculation keep him from doing what was right. In 2015, as Democrats still remain locked out of political power in the South because of that fateful choice in 1964, one may ask if it was the right one. All decent people – and history – would answer with a famous quote from another recent Republican icon, “Ya betcha!”
Let’s see if the Republican Party meets its test of character.