Pussy Riot: The Republican Crack-Up Over Trump Won't End Anytime Soon

Arizona Senator John McCain, left, and New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte are among the Republicans who uneasily embraced Donald Trump before withdrawing support over his comments on women. Reuters

No one embodies the Republican crack up over Donald Trump more than Kelly Ayotte.

The U.S. senator from New Hampshire is running for her second term, and she has been a heaping pile of contradictions and double talk about the Republican nominee. Trump won the New Hampshire Republican primary by almost 20 percent. Ayotte knows what a force he is in her state's party. She also knows that in the general election in New Hampshire, the swingiest of swing states, Trump is a liability. The mogul may have had a shot at winning the state but Ayotte has kept her distance—sort of. In June, her press secretary said that she was supporting Trump but not endorsing him, whatever that means. At a debate last week against her U.S. Senate opponent, Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire's governor, Ayotte was asked if Trump was a good role model. She fumbled her way through a long answer before saying yes. Within hours, her campaign issued a statement saying that, no, Ayotte, a former prosecutor, didn't think Trump or Clinton were good role models. Over the weekend, after Pussygate erupted, Ayotte abandoned her "support" for Trump and said she would write in Mike Pence's name.

Ayotte's dancing around Trump makes sense. She's hyper-ambitious, having reportedly broken her promise to serve a full term as the state's attorney general but quitting after just a few months in 2009 to pursue the Senate seat she won in 2010. Ayotte was talked up to be Mitt Romney's veep. She is in the unenviable position of being seen as a rising star in her party and yet on the verge of being wiped out.

Roughly a quarter of the Republicans in the U.S. Senate now say they won't vote for Donald Trump for president. Few had been principled #NeverTrump believers but most, like Ayotte, are scrambling. There's no precedent for senators fleeing a nominee of their party in modern times—not during the Barry Goldwater disaster in 1964 or George McGovern's 49-state collapse in 1972. Even when Teddy Roosevelt broke from the Republican Party in 1912 to run as the head of a third party—and won far more electoral votes than the GOP's nominee, President William Howard Taft—virtually all senators sheltered in place rather than abandon their party's nominee.

But the ideas that buoyed Trump aren't going away even if the mogul is crushed next month. Opposition to trade agreements and dramatically restricting legal immigration are chasms in the Republican party that can't easily be bridged. Trump won the Republican primary vote by more than five million votes. Will those people go quietly and support Marco Rubio next time or Kelly Ayotte?

Republicans who scrambled to distance themselves from Trump look less like profiles in courage and more like morally obtuse cowards. Trump's comments about grabbing pussy were a boast of sexual assault. But why Republicans drew the line there as opposed to the Muslim ban, deportation of 11 million undocumented migrants, unraveling NATO, spreading nuclear weapons, ostentatious support of Vladimir Putin, not to mention lewd comments about women, including plenty of news accounts of forced kissing, Republicans are fleeing Trump because of a deep fear of a landslide that will destroy their political futures. No amount of moral preening can change that.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump waves to supporters Saturday outside the front door of Trump Tower, where he lives in Manhattan, New York. Mike Segar/Reuters

Voters are unlikely to be fooled. If you're a backer of the Vichy government in France and switched your allegiance to the Allied forces and Charles De Gaulle just as Germany was ready to lose the war, it doesn't make you a member of la resistance. The good news for Republican Senate candidates like Ayotte is that they were often running well ahead of Trump. They may yet survive but they're increasingly imperiled the more Trump reinforces the appearance that he was always unfit for office.

Republicans have two dilemmas, then. Get to election day with minimal damage and then repair the breach after Trump. They might do well enough at the first, holding the U.S. Senate, containing House losses as well as their lead in state houses. (Under President Obama, Democrats lost more than 900 state legislative seats.)

Repairing the ideological fissures will be much harder. Because the U.S. has only two major political parties, they're always to some degree an uncomfortable confederation of disparate interests. But the Republicans are now riven in a way that Democrats just aren't. There is no huge fight in the Democratic party on immigration; there is in the Republican party. The trade fight in the Democratic party is much less fraught. Trump challenged Republican orthodoxy on everything including entitlements—he doesn't want them touched—and collective security like his badmouthing NATO. Maybe sheer hatred of a President Hillary Clinton will allow these divisions to be papered over easily. Richard Nixon brought the Republican Party together in 1968 after the Goldwater debacle, making a tent just big enough to accommodate hard-right supporters of the Arizona senator as well as the moderate Rockefeller Republicans.

But it will be harder this time. If this were just a fight about the Trans Pacific Partnership, then maybe an easy accommodation could be forged. But Trumpism is broader than that. It's a belief that the Republican party leadership is spineless and corrupt. Their fleeing Trump to save themselves won't sit well with the Republican majority that made Trump the nominee in the first place. This is Kelly Ayotte's problem. If you're a moderate, swing voter in Manchester you look at the Republican mess and say 'This isn't my party.'" If you're a hardcore Trump supporter in Keene, you look at Ayotte and the rest of the Republicans trying to force the man who won the nomination off the ticket and you think, 'This isn't my party.' Good luck fixing that.