I don’t know Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican Party (such as it is). He may be a very nice guy, what with a wife and kids and probably a car or two. Still, after watching him on the Sunday interview shows, I have concluded that the man has no pride, no shame and, almost certainly, no future. After Donald Trump loses the presidential election, the name Priebus will, like Quisling or even Boycott, take on a separate meaning: fool.
Priebus went from TV studio to TV studio, four in all, on a trudge of abasement, a ride of shame. He was asked about Trump’s womanizing, his attempts in the past to pass himself off as someone else (“John Miller,” “John Barron”), his misogyny and his plan to bar all Muslims from the country (details to follow). The Mexican wall, did that come up? His belittling of John McCain, was that mentioned? His mockery of a physically handicapped reporter, did someone mention that?
There is so much to offend, so much to defend: the king’s ransom of insults and moronic plans, the childish take on torture, the misunderstanding of the Constitution, the veritable conviction of all Mexicans on the charge of rape, the distrust of NATO, the off-the-cuff suggestion that Japan and South Korea get their own nuclear weapons, and, for a moment or two, the notion that women who seek abortions should be somehow punished.
And so poor Priebus bobbed and weaved. Sometimes he said none of this mattered. Sometimes he said the people didn’t care (he could be right about that) and often he said Hillary Clinton was worse — worse about women, worse about honesty and worse in ways that Priebus didn’t mention but that Trump has. Clinton, it turns out, is a woman, and so during a break at one debate, she used the time to go to the bathroom and returned to the stage a trifle late. “I know where she went — it’s disgusting,” Trump said some days later. “I don’t want to talk about it. No, it’s too disgusting. Don’t say it, it’s disgusting.”
By the third or so Sunday show, Priebus had melded into Don Draper, the central figure of “Mad Men,” the long-running and quite wonderful television series. But instead of selling cigarettes, he was selling Trump. Both products are unhealthy, one for the body, one for the nation. Just as Draper put his own welfare and that of his advertising agency before that of cigarette smokers, Priebus and others put the supposed good of the party over that of the nation. Trump would make a miserable, dangerous president — and Priebus must know it. A warning label should be affixed to Trump’s forehead.
Yet, the talk of compromise is in the air. Priebus and other Republicans can compromise on some things — tax policy, for instance — and Trump can do the same. But how can anyone compromise with Trump regarding Muslims? Will he agree to bar only 50 percent of them, maybe only Shiites or, come to think of it, Sunnis? What about Mexicans? Will he apologize to them all, or only some? And women and the disabled and veterans who had the misfortune of being taken prisoner, some of whom were tortured? Are some of them heroes, others of them not?
This effort to clean up Trump soils everyone involved. He cannot take back what he has already said. Words, programs and proposals matter, of course, but what matters even more is the mind-set that produced them. Trump’s belittling of McCain’s torture, his gleeful enthusiasm for waterboarding, his mocking of a physically handicapped reporter, his tasteless leering at female beauty evince a man who lacks empathy. This — not his narcissism, not his lying, not his unfathomable ignorance — is his most dangerous characteristic. He shares it with some of history’s most repellent figures.
Will Priebus have his Don Draper moment? Draper, a smoker himself, finally renounced cigarettes — he would sell out no more. Will Priebus and others in the Republican Party do the same? Will they get a glance of themselves in the mirror and wonder out loud what they stand for and if they have any pride left? I doubt it. Donald Trump has blanched the Republican Party of its honor and has played his most fervent supporters for suckers. It’s as if he was put on Earth to make fools out of his fellow Republicans — and give Reince Priebus something to do on Sundays.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.