AUG. 6, 2016 — Donald Trump’s campaign is, and always has been, about one thing: Donald Trump. There’s a straight line between his obsessive talk about his poll numbers and ratings to his convention night assertion that he and he alone can solve America’s problems. The same monomania explains the serious political malpractice he committed during the last week by continuing to go after the Khan family for their stinging criticism of him during the Democratic National Convention. It doesn’t matter that it makes the entire Republican Party look bad for its presidential nominee to attack the grieving parents of a soldier who died heroically in Iraq. They hit him, and he would hit back.
In the primaries, Trump ran against the Republican Party establishment as much as he did against the Democrats, and he shows no signs of changing his tactics in the general election. Not only did he refuse to endorse House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sens. John McCain and Kelly Ayotte in their primaries but he lashed out at all three as weak or ineffectual. They dared to criticize him — for each, a political necessity, given his self-destructive behavior — and that sin cannot be forgiven. Trump recognizes no interests other than his own and no cause higher than himself.
The past week featured talk that the Republican Party’s uneasy marriage to its nominee could be headed for a break-up of a sort we haven’t seen in modern political history. Rumors swirled about mass defections of elected Republicans from the Trump camp and about party leaders developing contingency plans to replace him on the ballot. One Republican congressman, Rep. Richard Hanna, who is retiring after his term ends, announced on Tuesday that he will vote for Hillary Clinton. Technology executive Meg Whitman, the former GOP candidate for California governor, said she will vote, campaign and raise money for the Democratic nominee.
Indeed, it has seemed for months like Trump was playing a game to see what it would take to get the Republican establishment to renounce him for good — denigrating McCain’s record as a prisoner of war, accusing an Indiana-born federal judge of being incapable of presiding fairly over a Trump University lawsuit because of his Mexican heritage, proposing a religious test for immigrants, suggesting the U.S. default on its debts, saying he wouldn’t automatically defend NATO countries from invasion, praising Saddam Hussein, appearing to suggest that Russia should hack into Clinton’s email, and on and on. The “Dump Trump — I dare you” movement hit a new high, not just when he kept dredging up the Khan controversy but also when he repeatedly insisted that the November election will be rigged, when he humiliated the mother of a crying baby at a rally, and when campaign surrogates variously suggested that President Barack Obama was responsible for the 2004 death of Army Capt. Humayun Khan (the fact that he was an Illinois state senator at the time notwithstanding) and that Obama was not a native born American citizen.
Yet there are powerful forces keeping Republican leaders like Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the fold. Control of the Senate is at stake in this election, and while Republican control of the House isn’t likely an issue, winning with a smaller majority will make it all the more difficult to keep the fractious GOP caucus together. Not only can they ill afford to lose votes from Trump’s supporters but they have spent so much time and effort demonizing Clinton that anything that looks like support for her will be considered apostasy by the Republican base. The open Supreme Court seat, which they have refused to allow to be filled, boxes them in further. And if that weren’t enough, Obama made a pointed call during the week for them to renounce their support for Trump. If there’s one thing Republican’s hate to do, it’s take advice from Obama.
Yet at some point, Republicans need to recognize that this election isn’t an ordinary choice between a more liberal candidate and a more conservative one. It’s a choice between a candidate who respects the institutions of American politics and government and one whose interest in himself overshadows all else. Trying to skate by until November isn’t an option. As Whitman said, it’s time for Republicans “to put country first before party.”