About a year ago, I finished a pretty bleak book about the GOP, but it turns out I was too optimistic. Even after the party’s turn away from time-honored Republican principles, I couldn’t have imagined a party that would abandon any pretense of standing for conservative values, decency or common sense. Having spent four years defending their guy at every turn, they’re stuck. In for a penny, in for a pound: Republicans can’t tell the truth about Trump anymore. Even if they wanted to.
Many GOP candidates know they face near-impossible odds this year. Across the nation, every morning there are campaign team calls on which political professionals try to think of ways their bosses might escape impending electoral doom. I’ve been on calls like this more times than I’d care to remember, and I know they will take on an increasingly desperate tone as reality sinks in. In a week or two, it’ll be all gallows humor from here on out as they mask the pain. Even the normal conversations about where campaign staffers might go to unwind after the campaign will be abnormal: Paris? Nope. How about Serbia?
Their 2020 plans were shattered by a combination of incompetence and fate. What was intended to be an election celebrating a booming economy, waged against an opponent who could legitimately be tagged as a socialist, has turned into a defensive battle for Trump and Republicans: Trying to justify dramatic job losses and business failures against the backdrop of more than 210,000 Americans, so far, dying in a badly managed public health crisis. Instead of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), they drew former vice president Joe Biden, a man so unthreatening that even Trump, the master of nicknames, is reduced to calling him “sleepy” — a snoozer of a put-down if there ever was one. In recent weeks, Biden’s polling lead has widened. Senate Republicans in once-safe seats are fighting to hang on. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), running in a solid-red state, has been reduced to begging for money on Fox News. Five years ago, he accurately tagged Trump as a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.” Now he’s Trump’s semiregular golf patsy.
Instead of covid-19 fading as an election issue, the pandemic has struck the president’s inner circle, a cluster of his family members, favorite White House staffers, his campaign manager, members of his debate prep team and the GOP chair. You hope they get well — any decent person would. You also hope, in vain, that this coterie of suck-ups actually cared about the health and safety of all Americans.
The Republican rank and file will soldier on, but the dilemma for every consultant and candidate is straightforward: What can we say?
Every day Trump makes it worse: After his first debate with Biden, instead of focusing on jobs and the economy, campaigns had to scramble just to prove that their bosses weren’t fond of a group of thugs founded by the author of “How to Piss in Public.” After springing himself from a brief hospital stay, Trump’s tweets and videos ham-handedly and disrespectfully implied that those who have fallen to covid-19 — those who didn’t have a president’s access to experimental drugs and round-the-clock care — are weak. He says he’s calling off coronavirus relief talks with congressional Democrats because he can’t get his way. (Art of the deal, right?) His staged White House return from Walter Reed military hospital created a gold mine for mockery, and I confess it was great fun to pan some of that gold.
Like Americans abroad who can’t speak the language, Republicans are saying the same thing they’ve been saying for at least four years, only louder. In his debate last week with challenger Jaime Harrison, Graham had the gall to babble that “the people running the Democratic Party today are nuts” at the same time that he’s trying to win reelection in a party headed by a man who suggested household disinfectant might cure covid-19.
With the exception of Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), no office-holding Republican with a national profile has even tried to establish an identity separate from Trump. With a combination of cowardice and convenience, Republicans went quietly into the night of Trump’s instability, grievances and immorality. Their occasional gestures at restraining the president — I have very serious concerns. I wish he’d spend less time on Twitter — are the stuff of late-night comedy. Their words have only served only to highlight their pathos. There could be no better metaphor for their fecklessness than justifying their enabling ways by touting the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. You think a Justice Barrett will save you, Republicans? You couldn’t even get through her Rose Garden ceremony without a coronavirus outbreak.
Republicans should start telling the truth. They should go in front of the cameras and say what the public knows just from living their daily lives: Trump has failed on covid-19. We need a national strategy. Give me a second chance. I was wrong to put my faith in the president. They should take some responsibility. But you can’t really say you’re quitting drinking while ordering another round at the bar.
So why won’t they? Call it the flight, flee or freeze syndrome wired into our DNA. Most politicians call themselves “fighters,” but in truth, almost all of them are starved for approval. These Republicans would cut and run, but where would they go? On the Trump battlefield, there’s no safe zone. So, they freeze, hoping something will magically save them.
The few Republican consultants who still talk to me begin most conversations with: “What a terrible year,” like farmers who’ve been hit by drought. Behind the scenes, that’s the mood. Everyone sees where we’re headed. No one dares challenge their king.