Republicans are in a full scale panic today because Donald Trump’s candidacy appears to be in chaos. There is talk of an “intervention,” inspired in part by Trump’s continuing attacks on the Khan family. RNC chair Reince Priebus is described as “very frustrated” and “stressed,” because he is “running out of excuses” to offer party bigwigs about Trump’s political incompetence and indifference to basic political norms. Republicans are panicking because Trump is frittering away a chance to defeat Hillary Clinton amid “self inflicted mistakes” and “missed opportunities.”
In other words, if only Trump were not acting in such a crazy manner right now, he’d be on track to having a real shot to beat Clinton, and if Trump just gets a handle on his fleeting bout of bad behavior, he’ll be right back in the position of having a good chance to win. An “intervention” just might set that right.
But let’s entertain another interpretation of what’s going on here. Republicans have shifted into a much higher state of Red Alert because Trump’s erratic antics are revealing just how reckless their decision to nominate him really was, and how reckless their continued support for him really is. In other words, Trump is now threatening to damage the party in far worse ways than Republicans had bargained for, because he’s revealing in inescapably clear terms the real character and qualifications of the person they knowingly nominated to run the country and continue to support for the presidency.
This quote from Newt Gingrich to the Post is extremely revealing:
“The current race is which of these two is the more unacceptable, because right now neither of them is acceptable,” Gingrich said in a Wednesday morning telephone interview. “Trump is helping her to win by proving he is more unacceptable than she is.”
Gingrich said Trump has only a matter of weeks to reverse course. “Anybody who is horrified by Hillary should hope that Trump will take a deep breath and learn some new skills,” he said. “He cannot win the presidency operating the way he is now. She can’t be bad enough to elect him if he’s determined to make this many mistakes.”
In this telling, Hillary Clinton is beatable because she is “unacceptable,” and all Trump has to do is be a little less “unacceptable.” You widely hear various versions of this argument. The premise: Clinton is so widely despised that a majority of Americans will leap at the chance to support Trump if he merely acts like a minimally acceptable alternative. Trump’s behavior right now is compromising that.
But this elides the many deeper weaknesses that bedevil Trump’s candidacy. There is no question that Trump’s current follies are likely very damaging. But Trump has long harbored a range of traits and qualifications — or lack thereof — that already render him a very compromised candidate, both in a political sense and in the sense that Republicans should not have nominated him because he is a unique menace to the American experiment.
Trump’s pathologically abusive tendencies, his hair-trigger overreaction to criticism and slights both real and imagined, and his mental habit of sorting the world into the strong and the weak — the dominant and the submissive — render him temperamentally unfit for the presidency. He lacks basic knowledge of the world and doesn’t appear burdened by any curiosity about the complexities of foreign affairs or domestic policy. He is at worst a genuine bigot and at best a charlatan who has actively sought to stoke reactionary hostility to culturally and demographically evolving America. He is indifferent to the inner workings of the American system and instead promises authoritarian glory.
Trump’s basic vision of the country as an apocalyptic hellscape — in which we’re existentially threatened by skyrocketing crime, dark hordes flooding up from the south, and refugee-terrorists menacing us from the east — is based on exaggerations, distortions, and lies. His policy agenda to “fix” things is pure fraudulence. He promised mass deportations that will never happen and would be hideously cruel if he could actually carry them out. He proposed a religious test for entry into the United States — a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country — and then modified that proposal to include a suspension of immigration “from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism,” which is even more absurd. As Ari Melber reports today, experts say his proposal would essentially destroy our immigration system.
Trump speaks to legitimate grievances on the part of blue collar workers in the industrial heartland, but he promises to bring jobs roaring back by bullying CEOs who talk about outsourcing jobs, and with trade wars that would do more harm to the economy than good. He promises to preserve entitlements and offhandedly vows to double Hillary Clinton’s infrastructure spending, which is wonderful, except he won’t say how he’d pay for this stuff, even as his tax plan would cost $10 trillion in revenues over ten years, making all of it even more implausible.
All of this renders Trump politically compromised as a candidate. His depiction of the country is pitched squarely at blue collar whites and is rejected by college educated whites and other voter groups, all of whom continue to be alienated by his worldview and persona. Majorities reject Trump’s promised mass deportations and ban on Muslims. While Trump could still always win, all of this is badly hampering his ability to broaden his appeal, casting doubt on the notion that he can prevail simply by being slightly less unacceptable than Clinton.
Beyond this, though, the key point here is that many of the Republicans backing him probably would not quarrel with much of what I’ve said about Trump’s qualifications and agenda. They might be inclined to agree with him on taxes. They have dabbled in the same sort of budgetary hocus pocus and border demagoguery that Trump has. And they do think the 11 million should remain subject to removal. But they agree that proactive mass deportations and the temporary ban on Muslims are basically crazy. Many of them have condemned Trumpism’s xenophobic and authoritarian appeals and many very likely agree that Trump is temperamentally unfit to wield even a fraction of the powers of the presidency. Many of them have adopted a posture in which they say they support him as the nominee but seem to be calculating that he will lose. Along the way, they’re hoping he’ll remain just respectable enough not to reveal just how reckless it was that they nominated him for the presidency.
What’s really happened in recent days is that Trump’s ongoing battle with the Khan family only made all of these traits — the unhinged response to criticism, the bigoted attacks on Muslims, the naked abusiveness directed at a grieving family — more glaringly obvious. By extension, this has made nominating this man even more impossible politically for Republicans to defend. But Republicans knew who they were nominating. They themselves had repeatedly acknowledged that his personal traits were alarming and had castigated many of his positions as cruel and at odds with fundamental American values. Voices from all across the political spectrum, from liberals to centrists to Never Trump conservatives, warned that he would only get worse.
Now Republicans want to stage an intervention?