Tuesday in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, President Barack Obama implored voters to consider Donald Trump a “risk” to the republic:
The plea — that Trump is distinguishable from other Republicans because he is “uniquely unqualified” and routinely violates “certain standards of behavior that we should expect out of our leaders” — is a compelling one, yet too many Republicans and Republican-leaning independents have ignored it. In the final days the dismal display of rank partisanship, that is Republicans lining up for Trump because he has an “R” after his name on the ballot (and because so many suffer from Hillary Clinton derangement syndrome), is sobering and depressing.
There are a few takeaways from the president’s remarks and from the “coming home” phenomenon among Republicans. They are worth considering as the GOP considers post-2016 election options and the Democrats come to terms with their reliance on a painfully flawed candidate.
First, it would have been nice if Obama — and Republicans, too — had occasionally acknowledged that ordinary members of the other party are not a danger to the republic. The assault on opponents’ motives, the straw man argument, the false choice technique and the attempt to delegitimize his opponents’ arguments was not new to the presidential rhetoric, but Obama certainly perfected these techniques.
In retrospect, was it necessary to accuse now-House Speaker Paul Ryan of “social Darwinism”? Was it appropriate for the president to accuse Republicans of having “suspicions about Social Security. . . [and] about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat or whether we should be spending money on medical research”? Yes, Republicans have engaged in the same hyperbole, which is why we are in the most horrendous election of our lifetimes. The instinct to demonize the other side means you’ll accept anything on your side. The president is right to ask us to stop; he should have been a better role model for eight years. Commending the other side while acknowledging differences is the essence of presidential leadership.
Second, why have so few Republicans stood foursquare against Trump? Why are so many willing to rationalize, ignore or justify entirely unacceptable conduct? There are, as the president would put it, far too few who seem to insist on “certain standards of behavior.”
Many Republicans would jump to their feet shouting, “But Hillary! What about Hillary’s standards?!” No, she’s no angel, probably below average in terms of candor and ethical restraint, but to quote the president she is not a “risk to the republic,” nor is she Vladimir Putin’s stooge. I cannot help but think that if, say, Obama were on the ticket, many Republicans would still be arguing “He’s worse than Trump” or “Trump at least won’t raise your taxes” or some other paper-thin justification. Clinton’s faults frankly are a convenient but unpersuasive justification for doing what Republicans wanted to do anyway, support whomever the GOP nominated.
It is hard to discern what prompts some Republicans to salute and fall in line behind Trump and others to dissent. James Kirchick in a bracing analysis argues:
What does drive enthusiasm for Trump? According to the American National Election Survey, the best determinant of whether someone is a Trump supporter-even more than Republican Party affiliation-is if they think President Barack Obama is a Muslim. Eighty-nine percent of those who believe this racist conspiracy theory will have a higher opinion of Trump than Clinton. A Pew poll, meanwhile, reports that Republicans who believe America’s impending non-white majority is “bad for the country” are overwhelmingly positive toward Trump, while a qualified sample of 10,000 Trump Twitter supporters finds that a third follow white nationalist accounts.
And so we come back essentially to Hillary Clinton’s deplorables. “It’s true that some Trump supporters loathe the man’s behavior and more outré positions, but nonetheless see him as something of a savior figure. They are willing to put their faith in a sociopath because they have convinced themselves that the alternative will literally destroy the country,” argues Kirchick. “On the other hand, many, perhaps most, Trump supporters aren’t voting for him in spite of his talking like a thug, demeaning women, and hurling racist insinuations at the country’s first black president, but because he does these things.” We’re not sure if it is “most,” but certainly there are too many, and some serious introspection on the right is needed.
That leads us to the last issue: If at least 45 percent of the country (80 percent or more of Republicans) do support Trump, what is to be done? That’s going to absorb many on the right for months and years to come, but we offer two considerations. For starters, defeat is not attractive and defeat at the hands of a terribly flawed opponent will repulse many Republicans, leaving them looking for alternatives. But beyond that it will be up to #NeverTrumpers and repentant/grudging Trump supporters to purge the bile (or run from it) and offer something better. We do hope that offered something better, both on the merits and politically more likely to succeed, voters will grab hold of it. That’s the theory at any rate.