Over the last 24 hours, Donald Trump has insulted his party’s former presidential nominee (former prisoner of war John McCain, for allegedly turning his back on veterans!), its current Republican speaker of the House, the parents of a slain war hero, the capital city of the state that is the linchpin of his electoral strategy, and a baby. None of these statements would make a list of Donald Trump’s 50 worst campaign gaffes. And yet their cumulative impact may be reaching a tipping point that causes his party to abandon him.
Trump’s wild unfitness for elected office, let alone the highest one in the land, has been manifest for years. Evidence continues to pour forth at an astonishing pace. Last night, his still-loyal aide Corey Lewandowski revived the conspiracy theory that President Obama has hidden a secret foreign birth that would disqualify him as president. Joe Scarborough reports that, in foreign-policy briefings, Trump has repeatedly asked why it is that the United States can’t use nuclear weapons.
We already knew Trump was an ignorant, manically aggressive conspiracy theorist, which has caused a handful of Republicans to withhold endorsements. What has especially pained Republicans is his lack of political acuity. His mishandling of Khizr Khan’s speech to the Democratic National Convention has reportedly caused grave misgivings among his staff. The Khan speech was an extraordinarily moving expression of the moral case that Trump’s ethno-nationalist ideology betrays the American idea. On a purely political level, though, the speech may not have amounted to much — it was delivered before network coverage of the conventions began, and might have lived on only in social-media circulation if Trump hadn’t responded with a series of deranged attacks on the parents of an American war hero.
From the standpoint of the staffers working to make Trump president, this behavior was worse than immoral. It was downright unprofessional. John Harwood reports that Paul Manafort, the supposed adult in charge of the campaign who can curtail the candidate’s self-destructive impulses, is “not challenging Trump anymore. Mailing it in,” and the other staff is (metaphorically, one assumes) “suicidal.” Ali Vitali confirms Harwood’s report, and adds that the situation is “way worse than people realize.” According to Dana Bash, these staffers “feel like they are wasting their time.”
This is sad for the Trump staffers, who have worked so hard to give an unstable demagogue control of the executive branch. More worrisome for Trump is the fact that Reince Priebus, who chairs the Republican National Committee, has “express[ed] concerns” to Trump, and is even “apoplectic.” Priebus is a key force holding the party apparatus behind its unstable presidential nominee. He is also from Wisconsin, and close with Paul Ryan, who remains the de facto leader of the national party, Trump notwithstanding. Despite the mildness of the slight to Ryan, whom Trump merely said he was not ready to endorse yet, his beloved status has made Trump’s latest comment a possible tipping point. Alex Burns reports, “Republicans now say Mr. Trump’s obstinacy in addressing perhaps the gravest crisis of his campaign may trigger drastic defections within the party, and Republican lawmakers and strategists have begun to entertain abandoning him en masse.” And according to Jon Karl, leading Republicans are “actively exploring” how to replace their nominee if he drops out. You can insult entire ethnicities and genders, spout conspiracy theories galore, betray a complete ignorance of every issue a president has to handle, but staying neutral on Paul Ryan’s primary race is an unforgivable offense.
None of this is to say that Trump will drop out, or that the party will abandon him. Republicans have calculated that turning against their nominee threatens to turn the election into a rout that would bring down other Republicans down-ballot. The party will probably stagger on to November. But, for the first time, an actual revolt of some kind is on the table.