Like many of you, I took a short summer vacation last week, hoping to clear my mind of politics and draw some perspective on human affairs from the calming rhythm of the ocean.
Except that all anyone on the beach seemed to be talking about was a certain loudmouth celebrity, and all the surf shops were selling “Make America Great Again” T-shirts, and all the kids were building “huge” sand castles with walls around them.
Even the clouds overhead seemed to assume a certain Trumpian shape this season, like wispy comb-overs drifting out to sea.
It brings me no pleasure to report that Trump has achieved his ultimate goal in life (and of his campaign), which is to become the most unavoidable human on the planet. When it comes to his lesser objective of actually becoming president, however, success is looking more remote.
If last year gave us the Summer of Trump, then this is the Summer of Trump’s Unwinding.
Even as I sat on the beach, in what was supposed to be among the least eventful weeks in any presidential year, Trump suggested that some gun lover might just have to assassinate his opponent, then managed to push that controversy aside with an accusation that President Obama literally founded ISIS, then said he was only being sarcastic, then said not that sarcastic, then declared himself the victim of a media conspiracy.
(This last part would have been more convincing had Trump not premised his entire campaign on exploiting celebrity-obsessed media for free coverage, without which he would by now be back to the business of pretending to fire game-show contestants from pretend jobs.)
All of which brings me back to this question of why Republican leaders in Washington continue to stand with Trump. I’ve already made the case, both seriously and satirically, that their endorsements are morally unsound and reckless for the country.
Increasingly, though, it seems to me that on a purely strategic level, where the future of the party is concerned, the never-abandon-ship approach is making less and less sense.
It’s easy to see how Trump’s candidacy might put you in an impossible position if you’re running for reelection to the Senate in, say, New Hampshire or Florida. You really can’t win if you antagonize either Trump loyalists or Trump haters, so you start to say stuff that makes you sound lobotomized, like: I’m going to help Trump become president so I can then thwart his ambitions.
(No joke — this is exactly the desperate logic that Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire’s poor junior senator, tried out the other day. We’ll see how that goes.)
My favorite new entry in the awkward-straddling category, by the way, comes from Mark Sanford, the always interesting South Carolina congressman, who wrote in a sober op-ed this week that while he supports Trump, he remains deeply troubled by the nominee’s refusal to turn over his tax returns.
Let me get this straight: You’re OK with him sort of banning Muslims from the country, or attacking a judge for being of Mexican descent, or accusing the president of organizing terrorists, or hinting at the necessity of political violence, or mocking the disabled, or not knowing the first thing about the nuclear arsenal. Check, check, check, check, check and check.
But you’re holding the line at him not disclosing his effective tax rate. Because that’s just un-American.
Leaving all that aside, though, let’s focus for the moment on Paul Ryan, the nominal leader of what used to be called the Republican establishment in Washington, before the Trump family staged its shareholder revolt.
Ryan’s calculation, in concert with fellow Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and Reince Priebus, seems to be that anything is better than all-out disunity. Trump has, after all, brought legions of new voters into the Republican fold this year, and he’s a powerful lure for small-dollar fundraising.
If you reject all that, the thinking goes, you risk inciting a new wave of divisive and potentially calamitous primaries in House and Senate races. Trump’s probably not going to win in November anyway, and party leaders want to be able to move on with an intact party and maybe even an expanded, energized base.
But let me offer an alternative way to look at it. Because it seems to me that this strategy ignores everything we know about pop-up political movements fueled by a combination of rage and Wi-Fi.
What Republicans should have learned from the tea party uprising is that you don’t really appease or absorb these kinds of rebellions. Their guiding principle is to upend party establishments, which is why John Boehner is home in Ohio now, despite having twisted himself like a yogi to avoid alienating the party’s angriest new voices.
Ron Paul’s voters didn’t become party loyalists. Neither did Ted Cruz’s. And Trump’s won’t, either.
Ryan could spend every one of the next 81 days campaigning for Trump, and Trump’s new voters would still walk away looking for ways to blow up the status quo, or else they’d walk away from politics entirely. What they won’t do is suddenly see the wisdom of responsible governance and run down to the local party office to see how they can help reelect their congressman.
On the other hand, by not more explicitly renouncing Trump’s increasingly appalling campaign, Ryan and the others may well be fumbling the more genuine opportunity to expand their party’s appeal.
More and more Americans, and particularly younger voters, are wary of party politics, mainly because they suspect — rightly — that leaders too readily subvert Americans’ overarching interests to their own partisan agendas. This is, at the moment, a much larger problem for Republicans than it is for Democrats.
According to the latest data from Pew Research, only about a third of the public sees the Republican Party favorably. (The Democratic number is more than 10 points higher.)
If Ryan, as the country’s ranking Republican, were to finally say enough is enough — that, whatever the consequences to himself or his party, he could no longer endorse Trump’s candidacy and hope to teach his children anything about decency and public service at the same time — then he would send a powerful signal to those voters. He’d be saying that conscience still exists in politics, which is exactly what Cruz got across in his convention speech, and I’m betting it serves him well.
If you want to know what standing on principle does to your credibility with voters, look at John Kasich in Ohio. He pointedly declined to endorse Trump or attend his convention down the street, and his approval rating is near 60 percent while other governors are tanking.
Oh, that’s right, I forgot. Ohio doesn’t look anything like the rest of America. Never mind.
Trump may yet have a surge in him; I’m not saying he doesn’t. But it sure looks like the ship is going down, and if you’re Ryan, you have to ask yourself how you want to be viewed when you step before the cameras during that first showdown over President Clinton’s agenda next year.
Do you want to be the guy who preserved unity at all costs, even though you had to swallow your convictions? Or do you want to be the guy who decided, when it wasn’t an easy thing to do, that American and personal values came before party discipline?
There’s little question in my mind about where Ryan’s heart is. As this long, bizarre summer draws to a close, political instinct ought to be telling him the same thing.