At various times over the past three and a half years, many of us have asked what would happen if President Trump truly went over the edge or if his behavior became so frightening that his unfitness for the most powerful position on Earth could no longer be denied.

But the human capacity for denial is apparently almost infinite. Let’s review what our president has been up to in the past few days:

  • With the death toll from covid-19 about to top 100,000, Trump has offered almost nothing in the way of tributes to the dead, sympathy for their families, or acknowledgement of our national mourning. By all accounts he is barely bothering to manage his administration’s response to the pandemic, preferring to focus on cheerleading for an economic recovery he says is on its way, even as he feeds conspiracy theories about the death toll being inflated. This weekend, he went golfing.
  • In a Twitter spasm on Saturday and Sunday, Trump retweeted mockery of former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’s weight and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) looks, along with a tweet calling Hillary Clinton a “skank.”
  • Eager to start a new culture war flare-up, he urged churches to open and gather parishioners in a room to breathe the same air, threatening that he would “override” governors whose shutdown orders still forbade such gatherings. The president has no such power.
  • He all but accused talk show host Joe Scarborough of murdering a young woman who died in 2001 in the then-congressman’s district office, bringing untold torture to her family from the conspiracy theorists who will respond to his accusation.
  • He has repeatedly insisted that the upcoming election is being “rigged” because states run by both Republicans and Democrats are making it easier to vote by mail, seeking to delegitimize a vote that has yet to occur, despite the substantial evidence that mail voting advantages neither party.

The truth is that Trump is not much more despicable of a human being than he has always been; it’s just that standard Trumpian behavior becomes more horrifying when it occurs during an ongoing national crisis. It is reality that changed around him, and he was incapable of responding to it.

We all know this. In public, Republicans may say that the real villain in the pandemic is China, or that all those deaths — and the tens of thousands yet to come — were inevitable, or that it is essential to get the economy moving. But they know as well as the rest of us do what a catastrophic failure Trump has been.

They must own the moral choice they now make. In 2016, they said Trump would grow serious and sober once he was faced with the awesome responsibilities of the office. There was little reason at the time to think it would happen, but it was at least possible.

No one can say that now. Not only do we know who Trump is, we know who he will always be. And we know that reelecting him will be disastrous in a hundred ways.

If you gave many Republicans in Washington truth serum, they’d say, “Of course he’s unfit to be president. Of course he’s corrupt, of course he’s incompetent, of course he’s the most dishonest person ever to step into the Oval Office. But I can live with that, because him being reelected means Republicans keep power, we get more conservative judges and we get all the policies we favor.”

That is the choice they’re making. We all know it, even if they’ll never say it out loud.

I’m not sure how I’d feel or what I’d do if was faced with a similar choice as a liberal, because it’s impossible to imagine a liberal version of Trump becoming the nominee of the Democratic Party — or even what a liberal version of Trump would look like. But we can see how Democrats grappled recently with their own questions about former vice president Joe Biden and the compromises they might have to make about him.

When a woman named Tara Reade alleged that Biden had sexually assaulted her in the early 1990s when she worked in his Senate office, the response among those who wish to see Trump defeated in November was complicated, to say the least. Some criticized Biden, some questioned Reade’s story and some remained agnostic pending further information.

And some, showing a forthrightness Republicans have not been willing to muster, said that even if they came to believe Reade’s story was true, they’d still vote for Biden, not just because Trump has been credibly accused of sexual misconduct by no fewer than two dozen women, but also because even if Biden turned out to be guilty, it would still be unfortunate but necessary to choose him over the most dangerously unfit president in American history.

In the days since, so many questions have been raised about Reade’s story that she has few defenders left; her own lawyer dropped her as a client. That has left Democrats breathing a sigh of relief, as they seem to have been excused from making a painful but necessary choice. Nevertheless, they grappled, candidly and publicly, with what it would mean for them if Reade were telling the truth.

The Republicans who support Trump have seldom done that, perhaps because there is no way to do so without acknowledging how morally indefensible that support has been. And as we approach another election, they’ll tell themselves that Trump isn’t as bad as he looks, or that Joe Biden is a monster, or that all that matters is winning.

In the future, when we look back on this dark period, we should resist the temptation to focus solely on Trump himself. To do so would be to excuse those who know exactly what he is but pretend they can work to keep him in office and remain unsullied. They cannot, and their moral culpability becomes clearer every day.

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