Fellow UW-Madison grad Jeff Greenfield:
Surely this time it would be different. Surely, after the worst mass shooting in American history, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee would choose his words carefully. He would make the case for an effective response to homegrown terror; listen to the counsel of his political team, and offer reassurance to the nation and—crucially—to Republicans who are desperately seeking evidence, even now, that they can embrace the candidate their convention will nominate in a month.
Instead, in a speech riddled with misleading and flatly false statements, Donald Trump ranted incoherently Monday about the need to toughen his Muslim immigration ban, even though the Orlando shooter was born in New York City 29 years ago (at a time when Afghan emigres like his parents were fighting on America’s side against the Soviet Union). In a TV interview, Trump suggested that the president of the United States was in some undefined way sympathetic to the murderous intentions of Islamic terrorists. And in the hours immediately after the massacre, he tweeted a self-congratulatory message about his prescience.
All of it served to punctuate miserably the many doubts that had unfolded the previous weekend in a spectacle never before seen in our nation’s politics. The Republican Party’s last nominee for president, Mitt Romney, hosted a gathering of hundreds of Republican conservatives in Park City, Utah, devoted to assailing his successor, Donald Trump. Romney’s former running mate, Paul Ryan, the once-revered speaker of the House, was grilled for supporting the candidate whose recent remarks the speaker himself called “a textbook case of racism.” In another speech, a recent GOP nominee for governor of California—Meg Whitman—explicitly compared the nominee to Hitler and Mussolini.
What was so remarkable about these and other acerbic remarks made at Romney’s gathering of GOP donors and business people was that they came from inside the party Trump will soon lead into battle. And they stem from doubts not about Trump’s policies, but about his fundamental fitness for the office. Dan Senor, former Romney adviser and Bush White House national security aide, even said that Trump’s comments about Obama suggest “there should be serious concern” about sharing classified information with Trump—information presidential nominees regularly receive.
In many decades of covering national politics, I don’t recall anything like this.
True, assaulting the character and temperament of a potential president has been a feature of our politics almost literally from the beginning. In 1800, the first genuinely competitive election, allies of Vice President Thomas Jefferson said President John Adams possessed a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” For his part, Jefferson was labeled “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father”—not to mention an “atheist” and “whoremaster.” From “Tricky Dick” Nixon to “Slick Willie” Clinton, the charge of defective character flying across the trenches is a thoroughly predictable element.
What’s emerged in recent days, however, is something we have never seen before. The hard questions about the character and temperament of the presumptive Republican nominee are coming from within his own party at precisely the time when the most important piece of business for a nominee is consolidation of that party. The weekend gathering that Romney hosted is yet one more measure of just how unmoored his candidacy is from anything remotely familiar in American politics.
In a normal intraparty contest, the fights usually take familiar forms: who best represents the party; whose ideas resonate, whose prescriptions are sound, or flawed; who has the experience (or the fresh ideas) that best serve the party. The disputes can be intense—think of Walter Mondale deriding Gary Hart’s new ideas campaign of 1984 by asking, “Where’s the beef?” or George H.W. Bush labeling Ronald Reagan’s ideas “voodoo economics,” or Hillary Clinton in 2008 deriding Barack Obama’s promises of change.
Rarely, however, does a candidate take on an intraparty foe on questions of character. For example, in 1992, with questions about Bill Clinton’s philandering and draft dodging threatening his campaign, his rivals tiptoed around the questions. The closest anyone came was when Sen. Bob Kerrey warned that in the fall, the Republicans would “open Clinton up like a soft peanut.” And once Clinton secured the nomination, even such cryptic references to his character disappeared from Democratic Party public conversations. The reason for such reluctance is intensely practical: You don’t want members of your own party who backed a defeated foe holding grudges into the general election campaign in the fall.
It’s no coincidence that here, as in so many other areas, Trump stands as The Great Exception, labeling his longest-standing opponent “Lyin’ Ted.” Even when a nominee faces deep opposition within the party, the basis for that opposition has been on policy grounds: Republican moderates and liberals shunned Barry Goldwater in 1964 because of his ideas on nuclear weapons and social policies; Democratic moderates and conservatives rejected George McGovern in 1972 because of his approach to war and social policy.
By contrast, look at what Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk said in refusing to support Trump’s candidacy: “Based on my military experience, DT does not have the temperament to command our military or our nuclear arsenal [emphasis added].” He’s not challenging Trump’s approach to the Middle East, or Russia, or ISIS. He’s implying something else: that Trump would not listen to his military, that he’d turn a diplomatic dispute into a casus belli; that he is not to be trusted with the power of the presidency not because of what he thinks, but because of how he behaves.
Or look at the widespread condemnation of Trump’s attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel. Unlike other ethnically tinged issues—the proposed deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants, the ban on Muslims—the dispute does not center on any notion of public policy. It is rooted in the idea that Trump has the instincts of a narcissistic bully, unable to even imagine that anyone might have a reasonable basis for disagreeing with him, and Trump’s apparent inability to distinguish between his private interests and the public interest. What is haunting a significant number of Republicans is that they are on the verge of putting someone in the Oval Office whose character and temperament make him unfit for the job.
For Trump’s supporters, this smacks of a serious double standard. Don’t most voters regard the presumptive Democratic nominee as neither honest nor trustworthy? Doesn’t Hillary Clinton have a troublesome history of false statements, ethically dubious behavior that even now hangs over her campaign? Yes, and it’s why the Trump campaign will launch a full-scale assault on her fitness for the Oval Office. That’s par for the course. But even during the most intense period of the nomination fight Sen. Bernie Sanders held his fire on character grounds. Taking too much money from Wall Street is a far cry from suggesting she would wreak havoc in the Oval Office.
There’s another reason raising character questions about a fellow party member is problematic: Firing harsh judgments about character across party lines is relatively cost-free; attacking “one of your own” can come at serious political cost.
And that’s what makes the retreat from Trump among so many Republican officeholders all the more remarkable. Even if the idea of changing the convention rules to “unbind” delegates and deprive Trump of the nomination is fanciful, the “non-endorsements,” “rescissions” and Talmudic “I’ll support but not endorse” adds up to something close to astonishing.
It is also a sharp reminder that Trump’s triumph in the primaries, and the prospect that he will lure disaffected Democrats and armies of first-time voters to the polls, may obscure a counterpoint: A striking number of committed Republicans and conservatives, including donors, operatives and foot soldiers, are prepared to withhold their support, their money and their votes that would have gone to any other Republican nominee.
Unlike so many in the GOP base, who see in Trump’s behavior a fearless willingness to take on a corrupt political system, these Republicans are seeing signs that he is a dangerous figure, not for what he thinks, but for who he is. And no amount of speeches read from a Teleprompter reciting anodyne pieties is likely to change that.
Will this drag on his candidacy doom Trump in the fall? We don’t know. Because—as is true of so much else this cycle—nothing like this has ever happened before.
It is insane to think that Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s misplaced blame for the Orlando shootings could be topped, if that’s what you want to call it, by the carrot-topped walking, talking non sequitur who is likely to lead the GOP to a catastrophic defeat in November. And yet, there it is.