What the Republican Party's Refusal to Denounce Donald Trump Will Cost

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump listens as Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, October 9. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Displaying the kind of will to power that would have made his German ancestors proud, Donald Trump has singlehandedly remade the United States in his vision: a laughingstock, a disaster, a nation in disarray. He has become the realization of his own prophecies, The Art of the Deal with a dash of the Book of Revelation. No wonder the religious right is in love.

The four horsemen are coming, comb-overs and all.

Trump participated in his second presidential debate on Sunday night against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, glowering behind her onstage like some George Romero zombie, wearing an ill-fitting suit and often looking so irritated I wanted someone to hand him a Xanax. According to a CNN/ORC poll, 34 percent of respondents thought Trump won the debate. One must assume these are some of the same people who think President Barack Obama is a Muslim (43 percent of Republicans), that we should build a wall along our border with Mexico (62 percent of Republicans), or that a culture of "political correctness," whatever that means, is responsible for our collective ruination (78 percent of Republicans).

Still, it's hard to see how anyone outside the far right could think that Trump made a case for himself as president on Sunday night. If he did, it was to run a banana republic jointly with Dr. Strangelove and Colonel Kurtz.

Highlights from Sunday night included:

  • Speaking of the Clinton email server scandal, largely manufactured by the right, Trump said, "If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation." He made it clear that he would have her imprisoned if given the power to do so, a breathtaking contravention of basic American principles. This was the stuff Soviet dictatorships were made of.
  • Appeared to call for a nuclear escalation with Russia: "Russia is new in terms of nuclear. We are old. We're tired. We're exhausted in terms of nuclear. A very bad thing."
  • Promised to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, a favorite GOP talking point, even if many Americans do favor some kind of government-sponsored health care program and have no interest in returning to a purely market-based system. Except the substance of his proposal was about as substantial as, well, his proposal on anything else: "Obamacare is a disaster," he said. Then, a little later: "It's very bad, very bad health insurance." His own plan? "You will have the finest health care plan there is." In comparison to Trump, George W. Bush sounded like a policy wonk.
  • Made overtures to the anti-Semites who constitute some of his staunchest supporters by twice referencing Sidney Blumenthal, an obscure Clintonland adviser. "Blooo-MEN-thallll," he lowed, exaggerating the Hebraic quality of the name. George Soros and Jonathan Gruber also made cameos in Trump's dark vision. Jonathan who? It doesn't matter, really. The point is his name and how its mere sound will drive the alt-right into a frenzy of Jew-hatred.

Trump made no apologies for the Access Hollywood tape in which he appears to brag about committing sexual assault, doubling down on his "locker room" talk defense. His lack of empathy, contrition and self-awareness, the total divorce from reality, make the diagnosis all too obvious: The man is a sociopath.

After the Access Hollywood tape was dropped, Republicans started to flee the Trump ship, which is headed resolutely for an iceberg looming on the November horizon. As of Sunday night, USA Today reported that "more than three dozen governors, senators and U.S. representatives have decided not to vote for their party's nominee." Both of the last two Republican nominees for president, Mitt Romney and John McCain, have denounced him. The Bush family has been silent—with the exception of Billy Bush, laughing along on that Access Hollywood tape as Trump boasts of the ease with which he can assault women. Billy has since been suspended from his prime-time role on the Today show.

Yet despite the obvious signs of a sinking ship, GOP leaders, including Reince Preibus, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, stand resolutely on deck, even as the danger of more October surprises remains very real. They have a political calculus, in that they cannot abandon down-ticket candidates, particularly in tight Senate races in Nevada, New Hampshire and North Carolina.

But what about the moral calculus? For decades, the Republicans have preached personal responsibility and moral probity. Apparently, though, morality was nothing but a cudgel with which to clobber minorities and liberals: black and Latino youth in inner cities, women who want safe and legal access to abortion. The party of a stern Judeo-Christian God is now led by perhaps the most godless, amoral candidate in American political history. One who has, to boot, frequently benefited from the kind of government largesse that was supposed to be the domain of "welfare queens." The response has been a damning acquiescence that will haunt the Republicans for a generation.

The nation does need a strong and principled Republican Party, if only to keep the Democratic Party honest. The populace demands a truthful discussion of the best way to fight domestic attacks, the right way to tax the rich, our energy future, our immigration mess. Trump and his enablers have made any such intelligent discussion impossible, hijacking the GOP's corpus like a vitiating virus that slowly rots the insides. A few Republicans, like Rob Portman of Ohio, fighting to keep his Senate seat, have tried to ignore Trump. Most, though, find themselves plagued by the same pestilence.

According to master pollster Nate Silver, Trump has only a 17.5 percent chance of winning the presidency, but the damage has been done. There will be no relief when Clinton is declared the winner on the evening of November 8, probably shortly after the polls close in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. Trump has already said the election is "rigged," effectively delegitimizing the results before those results are in. Worse yet, he has given voice to a hateful fringe that now feels it owns the Republican Party. With its silence, the Republican leadership condones this view.

There is time for a Republican of principle to speak truth to Trump, to denounce not only the man himself but those of his supporters who engage in racism, xenophobia, misogyny and anti-Semitism. Someone to shame the Trump camp once and for all, so that the bloated orange monster retreats to his preposterous, tacky penthouse and never emerges again. But no such courageous Republican exists. Most, it seems, are happy to stay on the deck of the Titanic.