Let’s put what’s happening right now in context. Periodically, the political press finds a question candidates (and sometimes other politicians as well) are having a difficult time answering, and so they ask it again and again. It’s not necessarily a “gotcha” in that it has no answer that won’t make the candidate look bad, but its attraction comes from the fact that the reporter knows it’s going to make the candidate squirm. That doesn’t mean it’s not substantively revealing, however. For instance, a couple of months ago all the Republican candidates were asked whether the Iraq War was a mistake, and their answers did tell us something about what they’ve learned from recent history. Hillary Clinton is often asked how her plans on one topic or another differ from what the Obama administration has done, which puts her in an awkward position but also forces her to be specific about what course she intends to pursue.
And now, as his statements grow more repellent and his opponents slowly become more willing to criticize him (very slowly in some cases), “Will you support Donald Trump if he is the GOP nominee?” is the question every Republican is getting.
It’s a natural question to ask. If you’re saying on one hand that he’s “entirely unsuited to lead the United States” (John Kasich), or that his plan to ban Muslims from coming to the country “is not what this party stands for. And, more importantly, it’s not what this country stands for” (Paul Ryan), or that he’s “unhinged” (Jeb Bush), or that he’s “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot” (Lindsey Graham), then it’s awfully hard to say on the other hand that if he’s your party’s nominee for president, you’ll be right at his side.
Yet that’s exactly what Republicans are saying, even if not in so many words. I have yet to see a single prominent Republican say that they won’t support Trump if he becomes the GOP nominee.
As it happens, the presidential candidates promised their loyalty to the party’s nominee, whoever he or she might be, back in September — though the purpose of the written pledge the party circulated at the time was to get Trump himself to forswear a third-party run. But nobody should be surprised at this.
Let’s say you’re a Republican politician who is sincerely disgusted by Trump’s demagoguery. Here’s what you’d have to consider on the other side of the scale. If Trump becomes president, he’d inevitably fill the 3,000 or so appointed positions in the executive branch almost entirely from the Republican government-in-waiting currently camped out in think tanks and advocacy organizations; those people will then proceed to advance conservative goals in every agency of government. He’ll appoint conservative judges who want to overturn Roe v. Wade, undermine laws protecting worker and minority rights, and so on. He’ll carry out a pleasingly belligerent foreign policy. And perhaps most of all, he’ll sign most everything the Republican Congress delivers to his desk, which could be quite a lot; repealing the Affordable Care Act would be only the beginning.
It’s true that Trump presents something of a risk by being both ideologically unpredictable (genuinely so, unlike someone like Mitt Romney, who generated lots of suspicion among Republicans but would have been perfectly reliable) and just volatile. You never know when he might start a nuclear war, because that’s what winners do and he’s no loser. But on the whole, Trump would shower policy riches upon Republicans, ones they’ve been waiting seven years for.
And then there’s this: the alternative, if Trump is the nominee, is probably Hillary Clinton, with the possible exception of Barack Obama the single political figure Republicans most despise. So to reject Trump, they’d have to argue that everything Clinton would do from a policy perspective, and just by making them mad all the time, is preferable to a Trump presidency.
To be clear, I’m not saying this to excuse the tacit support nearly every Republican is giving Trump, nor the future support they’ll give him if he’s the nominee. Trump may be the most despicable politician we’ve seen in America in decades, someone who is explicitly encouraging Americans to nurture and act upon their darkest feelings of fear and hatred. Everyone who stands behind him ought to be tainted by that association for the rest of their careers.
But especially in this age of negative partisanship, where people increasingly define their political identities not by whom they support but by which party and politicians they hate, it would be shocking if Republicans could contemplate not supporting the GOP’s nominee when Clinton is the likely alternative. And the awful things he has said are just exaggerated versions of what have become mainstream Republican positions — they rail against undocumented immigrants, and he wants to deport them; they stoke fear of Muslim refugees, and he expands that to all Muslims, and so on. If he were moving in the other direction it might be a different story, but as it is Trump is only taking conservative ideas and moving them a few steps farther to the right.
There’s some threshold of villainy Trump could cross where his fellow Republicans would say that they couldn’t support him under any circumstances. But wherever that threshold is, he hasn’t reached it yet.