When I caught up with John Kasich yesterday in a Washington sports bar, I asked Ohio’s governor if he could see himself supporting Donald Trump. He shook his head.
“I’m waiting to see if at this point there’s going to be a Damascus Road experience, a dramatic change,” Kasich said. “And I haven’t seen it. You never know when it can happen. But without that, I won’t be involved.”
Kasich said he couldn’t even see voting for the guy, though he was quick to add he wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, either.
I asked him why he thought Republican leaders in Washington continued to profess their support for Trump, even as they denounced his comments.
“Look, I think in either political party, there’s always a tug between party loyalty, being part of the team, and your conscience,” Kasich said. “And there’s a lot of people that are really torn. And I don’t want to excuse them. But human nature being what it is, there’s always a sense of ‘what’s my obligation to the team’ and ‘how does this affect the people I work with.’
“I think that’s why, to some degree, you’re seeing people run away. They won’t even talk to the press. Because they don’t know what to say.”
What about his own party loyalty?
“I’m a Republican,” he told me. “I’m going to travel for Republicans. I’m going to help the ticket in Ohio. But I’ve learned over the course of my career that I have to live with myself and with my family.”
You would think, after the worst mass shooting in American history, and after wave upon wave of Donald Trump’s stunning response to it, elected Republicans would be asking themselves a hard question right now.
Are they going to dutifully follow Trump down this twisted, rapidly descending path to the place where he promises there will be all kinds of winning and “everything is going to be fair” because there’s going to be “total justice”?
Or, like Kasich, are they going to say “enough is enough” and set off in search of higher ground?
I’ve had plenty of fun in this column at Trump’s expense. He’s said so many things over the last several months that cry out for a sense of humor. (I go back to his debate answer when he was asked about the nuclear triad: “I just think nuclear — the power and the devastation are very important to me.”)
But there’s nothing funny about where we are right now. First Trump took credit for his own prescience before the bodies in Orlando could even be counted. Then he reiterated his call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States — a proposal he had walked back because rivals and allies alike rejected it.
In the days since, he’s accused American Muslims of sheltering terrorists and has darkly vowed to keep a closer eye on their places of worship. He’s lied repeatedly about the national origin of the Orlando shooter, who was born in the same New York borough from which Trump himself hails.
He’s banned one of the nation’s premier newspapers, the Washington Post, from covering his campaign events, adding to his growing media enemies list.
Why? Because the Post had the temerity to report Trump’s clear insinuation that the president of the United States was hiding his sympathy for foreign terrorists, if not actively aiding them.
And to think the Russians had their hackers break into computers at the Democratic National Committee so they could steal the opposition research on Trump. Here’s a tip, Vladimir: Save yourself the trouble and turn on the TV, instead.
I don’t think Trump is a fascist — I really don’t. Fascism requires a belief system. All Trump knows is how to read a room and exploit the most powerful emotion lurking in it.
But like a storefront psychic who happens upon a genuine spirit, Trump is now playing with powerful historical currents he really doesn’t seem to understand. I can’t shake from my mind a tweet I saw this week from Jared Yates Sexton, a correspondent for the New Republic, who mingled among the crowd of parents and their children at one of these raucous Trump rallies in North Carolina.
“Overheard: immigrants aren’t people, honey.”
I’m not one to get swept up in the grating hyperbole of our times, but there are moments in history when lines have to be drawn. There are moments by which succeeding generations will judge the moral clarity of leaders, no matter what else those leaders may have achieved in their lives and careers, no matter how rational their reasons for nuance.
History judges harshly the politicians who raised not a finger of objection when Franklin Roosevelt signed off on internment camps for Japanese-Americans. History scorns Joseph McCarthy’s cowering colleagues in the Senate, but it honors the memory of Sen. Millard Tydings, who lost his seat after opposing McCarthy, and the Army lawyer named Joseph Welch, who finally humiliated him.
Kasich is a guy who talks a lot about judgment — although in his case it usually has more to do with pearly gates than future historians. When I asked him about Trump’s reaction to Orlando, he didn’t bother calibrating.
“Terrible,” he told me. “Terrible. It’s not the way you operate as a leader. Terrible. ‘I told you so’? What’s the magic of that? You know, who doesn’t know we are vulnerable to radical Islam? Everyone knows we are vulnerable to it.
“And then,” Kasich went on, “to somehow insinuate that the president of the United States accepts this or condones this, it’s just outrageous.”
As for American Muslims, Kasich told me: “When they know someone is going to do something to cause violence, they’re going to speak out about it. That’s what I believe.”
I wondered if Trump could win by talking this way.
“I don’t think he can get elected with this rhetoric, no,” Kasich said flatly.
But, once again this year, Kasich is an outlier in his party. More Republicans are thus far following the agonized examples of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, who seem to be saying they are bound to support any Republican nominee with human DNA, no matter how many statements they have to cautiously disown.
Of Trump’s serious-minded backers, none puzzles me more than Chris Christie. Say what you will about Christie (the man inspires strong feelings, I understand), but I’ve talked with him often over the years, and Christie’s no bigot or conspiracy theorist.
Until he decided to run for president, and even before Hurricane Sandy threw them together, Christie had quietly developed a warm personal relationship with President Obama. He stood by his nomination of a Muslim judge, despite howls of protest, and he nominated a gay black justice to the state Supreme Court.
And yet somehow Christie is apparently OK with this latest barrage of reckless ignorance. I’ve asked repeatedly, since he withdrew from the presidential race and endorsed Trump, for the chance to hear his case for Trump’s candidacy, but Christie has refused.
Instead, Christie is said to be exerting his constructive influence on Trump by leading the transition. A transition to what, exactly? An administration that would ban Muslim Americans from entering their own country? That would muffle a free media? That would make the neighborhood mosque a target for mobs?
Is this really what Christie worked his entire career to realize?
And who’s signing up for that transition? Are there many Republicans of gravity watching this stuff on TV and thinking: “Man, I really need to be Trump’s secretary of state. How do I get my name in that hat?”
How many thoughtful public servants are clamoring for the No. 2 slot on the Neo-Know-Nothing ticket? You know who ran with Barry Goldwater in 1964? Of course you don’t. Ever wonder why?
We get it. Politicians are ambitious. They dream of high-stakes conversations in the Oval Office with the president — any president. They’d like to think they can influence Trump, rather than denounce him. They feel the gravitational force of history.
But events of the last week have convinced me that history isn’t going their way. We may kindly remember a John Kasich or a Jeb Bush — guys who had the sense of self-worth to stand up and say they wanted no part of this particular crusade.
The rest will answer for whatever comes of this mess, and depending on the consequences, they may answer to the ages.