In Standing by Trump, Republican Leaders Continue to Put Party Over Country

Donald Trump. Photo: DSK/AFP/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: the fallout from the Trump-Khan feud, the question of standing up to Trump, and Hillary Clinton’s post-convention bounce.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s protracted feud with the Khan family, President Obama has openly called on Republican leaders to withdraw their support for Trump, arguing that repeated criticisms of his missteps are meaningless unless they come with real consequences. At this point, would it be more dangerous for the GOP to abandon Trump or to defiantly double down on him?
The most dangerous thing — for America, assuming we care more about the country than either political party — would be for Trump to be elected president. The most patriotic thing would be for Republican leaders to abandon Trump and do anything possible to stop him. But most GOP leaders have other priorities: gaining the White House for their party no matter who the chief executive or what the price, holding their House and Senate majorities, and retaining statehouses. They are not going to mount an effort to repudiate Trump unless they think those partisan political goals — especially holding Congress — are in serious jeopardy. That’s their sole principle. The only dangers they care about are threats to their own hold on power. Only when polls unambiguously tell them that they are on the Titanic and that they are going down with it will they leap into the lifeboats.

For many liberals, as for Obama, Trump’s nasty belittling of the Khans was a “Have you no sense of decency?” turning point to rival that famous moment in the 1954 Army–McCarthy hearings when the counsel Joseph Welch so effectively stood up to the bully Joe McCarthy, hastening his demise. But many Republicans don’t see it that way at all. Writing in The Hill, the conservative columnist Charles Hurt surely spoke for many Trump supporters and GOP leaders when he wrote that Khizr Khan had been “tricked” by the Clinton campaign into being used as a “tool” to “divide people.” Hurt argues that the Gold Star father was given center stage at the Democratic convention only so he could be exploited as “a Muslim of Pakistani heritage” to pander to racial political correctness.

John McCain and Paul Ryan criticized Trump’s attack on the Khans, but they continue to support Trump out of fear of Republican voters who share Hurt’s point of view. They support Trump even though he told the Washington Post yesterday that he refuses to endorse either of them in their own upcoming primaries. What does it say about McCain, who stood up heroically to his North Vietnamese captors, that he is not brave enough to stand up to a bully like Trump out of fear of losing his reelection bid? What a sad and ignoble twilight to his career. And what does it say about Ryan’s much-touted intellect that he thinks that Trump, if elected president, will allow him to pursue his sacred conservative agenda in Congress? President Trump will humiliate and disregard the Speaker of the House, whether Ryan or Nancy Pelosi, just as candidate Trump is doing now. When Trump withheld his support for Ryan’s reelection yesterday, the reason he gave was his skepticism that Ryan was capable of “very, very strong leadership.” On this point, at least, Ryan has proven Trump completely right.

Obama’s remarks didn’t seem to draw out any immediate reaction from GOP leaders, and they came on the same morning that Representative Richard Hanna said he’d be the first Republican in Congress to vote for Clinton in the fall. What will be the fallout if Republicans like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell fail to set a tone for the party’s response?
Good for Hanna, but let’s note that he is retiring from the House at the end of his current term, so he has nothing to lose by opposing Trump. He’s typical of the Republican elites who have most forcefully spoken out against Trump; they are, with few exceptions, politicians and operatives who are out of power or were defeated in the primary. Or they are conservative pundits who had no clout to begin with. In other words: the Bush family and its retainers; the Romney crowd; Ted Cruz and those around him who hope he will inherit the party’s ruins if Trump loses; and the right-of-center op-ed writers of the Times and Washington Post. These #NeverTrump-sters are held in utter contempt by Trump voters — and by Trump publicists like Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham. They have no constituency except in the press, which this week chronicled the anti-Trump defections of the Jeb Bush adviser Sally Bradshaw and the failed GOP California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, as if their actions actually meant anything to anyone beyond their own vanquished Establishment cohort.

Ryan and McConnell have set a tone — they are quislings. They missed any chance to be heroes by not repudiating Trump when it mattered, before the Republican convention. Their tone is matched by most of their peers, including the oleaginous Marco Rubio, who offered his latest profile in cowardice this week by floating the theory that Trump would grow in office once he is in the White House. We’ve actually reached the point where the Koch brothers, the rare donors who have persistently refused to lend financial support to Trump, are the moral standard-bearers of the GOP.

The fallout for the Republican Party of the Great Ryan-McConnell Wimp-Out is anyone’s guess, but my own is this: The dethronement of both congressional leaders and the rest of the so-called GOP Establishment that began in the primary will be complete. The party will be inherited by the Trump base, a.k.a. the Palin–tea party base, that has risen from the grass roots since 2008, when Obama came to power, and consolidated its power ever since.

In the first set of post-convention polling, Hillary Clinton has come out with a clear lead. Is this post-convention bump likely to stick?
God knows. At the Times, the Upshot now gives Clinton a 74 percent chance to win. Given that this is the same prognosticating operation that failed to spot Trump’s rise during the primaries and kept spotting a Rubio victory around the corner, its Clinton bullishness is not necessarily good news for Clinton. And contrarily enough, one of its analysts, Nate Cohn, recently wrote that Trump’s popularity with “white voters without a college degree, and particularly white men without a degree” is “enough to keep the election close” and “could even be enough for him to win.” Then again, over at FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver downplayed the importance of Trump’s “predominantly white, working-class base” because, he wrote, it’s “a smaller share of the electorate than you might think.” So, pick your Nate!

What gives me hope that Trump is in trouble — at least for the moment — are not the polls, or the musings of any poll analysts, or even the fresh reports of disarray and division in the Trump campaign, but the actions of the man himself. Trump’s ranting this week that the election is “rigged” and his ludicrous efforts to change the dates of the debates suggest that he thinks he is in trouble and is laying the groundwork for a blame game the morning after. If he loses, the two people we know for certain he won’t blame are himself and Vladimir Putin.

Republican Leaders Continue to Put Party Over Country