The Trap the GOP Should Have Seen Coming

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Many more of your smart emails are coming in over Trump and what he means for the election, the GOP, and the country. The first one comes from reader Reid, who describes a familiar outlook that is more relevant than ever, as Trump’s campaign continues to implode while taking the Republicans down with him. (Sarah Palin’s “going rogue” in 2008 seems quaint by comparison.) Here’s Reid:

The fact that the GOP isn’t pushing back on Trump’s attack on the election is appalling and reprehensible to me. McConnell’s silence stands out in particular. The GOP is dead, and the GOP is certainly dead to me (and that is not a good thing for our country).

I once had a theory: People like Christie, Pence, McConnell, and Ryan, by supporting Trump, would place them in position to prevent Trump from doing stupid things if he were elected. The reasoning here is: If they openly opposed and antagonized Trump, there would be zero chance that Trump would cooperate with them. (They probably had a 10 percent chance of controlling him or getting him to cooperate if he viewed them as loyal supporters.) These justifications seem somewhat compelling to me, even though they are also a bit dubious and awfully close to easy rationalizations that mask personal ambition and realpolitik, because they put the country first.

Created by a reader, Alan Tobey

But none of these justifications seem valid now (if they ever were valid). Trump is aggressively attacking the validity of the election and decrying the lack of support from the GOP—which turns his supporters against the GOP. McConnell or Ryan’s pushback will carry little weight with Trump supporters. It also seems clear that Trump views Ryan (at least) as disloyal. That basically means Ryan has almost no chance of working effectively with Trump.

There’s one other possibility that comes to mind to justify their continued support: If they renounce Trump now, I’m thinking that just feeds the Trump’s narrative the the GOP wasn’t supporting him sufficiently all along. Still, even if this is true, as I mentioned earlier, I’m not sure the GOP is in an effective position to push back against Trump’s refusal to accept the election results.

Earlier this year, a part of me felt the Republicans should have abandoned their party, leaving Trump behind and other Republicans who wanted to support him—while forming a new party. This move could rid themselves of everything bad about the party (e.g., racism) and with Trump as the figurehead, creating a blank slate to build a new party, one that would could appeal to minorities and also working- and middle-class voters. It was an opportunity with the long game in mind. The pain in the short term would be intensely painful (e.g., losing the White House, maybe even losing seats Congress). But it’s not like the route they've chosen will avoid any of those things either!

Instead, the GOP leadership has lost all credibility in the process. I don’t and won’t see them as credible leaders and re-builders of the party. I feel like they’re in a worse position than if they tried to create a new party. And it would be even worse still if Trump wins.

Another reader, Steve, suggests that the GOP should’ve seen this sort of “rigged” rhetoric coming after Trump’s sustained Birtherism—and now their chickens have come home to roost:

Much has been said and written about the possibility of Trump and his followers refusing to accept the legitimacy of a Clinton victory. Is this that different than most of these same people’s reaction to Obama’s election? Trump himself made Obama’s ineligibility a years-long vocation.

This next reader, Robert, takes a longer historical view and finds that Trump—enabled by the cowardly GOP establishment—runs counter to America’s aspirational goal of “a more perfect union”:

When our founders framed up a country based on democracy—“All men created equal,” freedom of speech and the rest of it—they pointed us in the direction of idealism. The personal hypocrisy for some of our wig-wearing, slave-owning forefathers must have been pretty thick, but hypocrisy is always the risk of idealism.

Donald Trump represents the opposite: brutal honesty. Because he is richer and more powerful than women at parties or contractors working on his buildings, he takes what he wants, sex, money, favors from politicians and whatever else he desires. This is, in truth, the way the world works. Trump is a poster child for what you can get away with if you are rich and powerful and a celebrity.

The fragile but enduring premise of our country is that we will perpetually strive against the brutal reality of the world toward something better, fairer, and more just. This has been a spectacularly successful experiment, so far but progress has been slow to retrograde for the past several decades, especially for people in rural America. Trump represents a repudiation of the founding ideals, but his appeal is only possible because the previous leaders have so poorly succeeded at the promise of making things better for everyone.

Update from a reader in Chicago, Victor, who points to more examples of how the Republican Party is reaping what it sowed:

I think one of the problems the GOP has with refuting Trump’s claims of a rigged election is that the GOP has been using the bogeyman of election fraud (of which there is none to really speak of) to disenfranchise voters all over. If they now say that the elections are fair, their base—which has been fed the lie of fraud for about 10 years—is not going to have it.

I think the party has put out so many patently false narratives to their base using non-traditional media (like mailers, surrogates etc) that it would be difficult for them walk all those back without losing the base. I mean things like Obama is a Kenyan, Obama is a Muslim, there is massive voter fraud in the cities, Obamacare can be repealed, etc etc. I am sure the people pushing these did not themselves believe that those things have come home to roost. Now when the “leaders” come out saying that the elections are actually fair, the base does not believe them.

Can we call these guys leaders anymore? People like Ryan and McCain? They are not leaders. They can and do say things regularly that contradict their own statements from 1-2 months ago to keep themselves politically viable. This election has exposed the spinelessness of the GOP elite like nothing else has. We always talked about the hypocrisy of the GOP, especially when it comes to “Christian Morals,” that I never expected them to be spineless too.

Even more spineless, and soulless, is the very public support of Trump by Jerry Falwell, Jr., the president of Liberty University. In the following clip from CNN, Falwell tries to squirm away from Trump’s sexual immorality and criminality by claiming that “we’re not electing a pastor” and “render unto Caesar” and “who am I to judge?”—attempting to appear like he’s just a humble ordinary citizen, not one of the most prominent evangelical voices representing the world’s largest Christian university he inherited from one the most famous evangelical leaders of the 20th century.

God bless these principled Christians:

[The student group Liberty United Against Trump says] that the Republican presidential nominee “is actively promoting the very things that we as Christians ought to oppose.” … “We are Liberty students who are disappointed with President Falwell’s endorsement and are tired of being associated with one of the worst presidential candidates in American history,” according to a tweet from the group’s social media coordinator Tyler McNally.

Here’s the group’s full statement, which was signed by more than 200 students:

Update: Here’s the smug response from Falwell, who begins by saying:

I am proud of these few students for speaking their minds. It is a testament to the fact that Liberty University promotes the free expression of ideas unlike many major universities where political correctness prevents conservative students from speaking out.

Free expression of ideas, huh?

Joel Schmieg says he doesn’t know exactly what he wrote that made Jerry Falwell Jr. cut his article out of the Liberty University school newspaper. He just said that the school’s president told his editors his story criticizing Donald Trump couldn’t run. … [Schmieg’s piece condemned Trump for bragging about sexual assault and condemned premarital sex, which is banned at Liberty.] Still, Schmieg said Falwell, who has endorsed Trump and stumped for him at the Republican National Convention, squashed the piece anyway. He said “everything controversial” gets sent to Falwell first.

Perhaps someone should send Falwell the Lord’s prayer too, says reader Tom:

Falwell makes an amazing theological statement at about 1:20 in the CNN Erin Burnett clip: “It’s not up to me to forgive anybody. I’m not, I’m not Jesus. Only Jesus can forgive and He can forgive anybody.”

This is clearly at odds with the Lord’s prayer, the only prayer that Jesus taught. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Did any Liberty students notice this?

Update from one more reader, Ken in Santa Barbara, who circles back to the central character in this horror show:

Once it was apparent that Trump would get at least 35% of the primary vote with no one strong opponent, it should have been obvious the party was doomed. They would have to choose between supporting Trump’s candidacy and alienating enough traditional GOP voters (who might stay home, and not vote down ballot), and opposing him and enraging his supporters (who would also abandon the down ballot GOP candidates). Principled Republicans could quit the party to form a new one, but that basically gives control of the party to maybe a third of the members, many of whom have no loyalty to the GOP anyway.

If the leaders (especially Ryan) had any courage, they would not negotiate with the extreme right wing of the party and make a deal with Democrats to get enough votes for the speaker. They would end their adherence to the Hastert Rule and stop relying only on GOP votes to pass legislation. This would allow compromise that would be in their best interest, and would drive the Trumpists out of the party. Even though they would have a smaller GOP, it would still be better than starting over.

As a Dem-supporting independent, I don’t really care. They are toast no matter what.