Whatever you think of Donald Trump, his political achievement is enormous, and he deserves the credit.
With no background in elected office, Trump has led the Republican presidential field for eight months. His strong plurality has proven to be demographically and geographically diverse. He has soundly beaten a series of talented, well-funded opponents. He has effectively tapped into deep-seated anger and resentment, promising the recovery of a nation that his followers regard as weak, lost and unrecognizable.
And Trump is not just winning; he is redefining how politics is done. Out: policy speeches, white papers, paid media, the ground game. In: monologues, social media, free media, advance work on big rallies. Few politicians in history — Franklin Roosevelt’s mastery of radio and Ronald Reagan’s use of television come to mind — have more instinctually and effectively adapted to new communication methods.
Many Republicans now look at these undeniable successes and ask: “How far should we go for unity’s sake?” Some are beginning to make their inner peace with Trump. He will, after all, eventually need experts to advise and guide him. His Supreme Court picks are bound to be better than Hillary Clinton’s. Maybe we just need to respect the democratic will.
These justifications are not insane, but they are ultimately not persuasive. Trump has little history of changing or refining his views through study and policy advice. Many of his goals, while too foolish to implement, are too vivid to revise. Try to imagine President Trump backing down on building the great wall or halting Muslim migration.
On the Supreme Court, even well-intentioned Republican presidents have made choices that didn’t work out quite as planned. How would Trump, lacking a serious judicial philosophy, and perhaps facing a Democratic Senate, make his decision? Consult his radically pro-choice sister, an appeals court judge? Let his prospects battle it out on a season of “Survivor”? On these matters, Trump is entirely unmoored and unpredictable. It is hard to justify a presidency, which would be dangerous and destabilizing in other ways, on odds this long.
What the argument for accommodation is missing is the core reality about Trump. His answer to nearly every problem is himself — his negotiating skill, his strength of purpose, his grasp of the national will. But this is more “will to power” than separation of powers; more Nietzsche than Madison. Trump is not proposing a policy debate that can be adjudicated in the normal processes of our government. He is offering himself as master of every situation. We are supposed to turn in desperation to the talent and will of one man, who happens to be bristling with prejudice and blazing with ignorance. We are seeing the offer of personal rule by someone with no discernible public or personal virtues.
Americans are discontented with the governing class, with good reason in many cases. But Trump would be the oddest answer in our history to a leadership void. He has offered disaffected people an invitation to political violence. “Knock the crap out of them, would you?” he said at one rally. “Seriously. OK? Just knock the hell — I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise.”
And this permission for violence is paired with an embrace of ethnic and religious bigotry, casting blame and suspicion on Muslims and undocumented immigrants. It would be difficult — or should be difficult — for any Republican to endorse a presidential candidate whose election would cause many of our neighbors to fear for their safety. Or to embrace a candidate who promised to purposely target children in the conduct of the war on terrorism. Or a candidate who has praised the “passion” and patriotism of followers and predicted riots if he doesn’t get his way at the GOP convention.
For Republicans, accommodation with Trump is not just a choice; it is a verdict. None will come away unstained. For evangelicals, it is the stain of hypocrisy — making their movement synonymous with exclusion and gullibility. For GOP job seekers, it is the stain of opportunism (consider the sad decline into sycophancy of Chris Christie). For conservatives, it is the stain of betrayal — the equivalent of supporting George Wallace in 1968 as an authentic populist voice.
All this leaves completely horrible options: sitting the election out, supporting a third-party candidate, contemplating a difficult vote for Hillary Clinton. But these are the only honorable options. As one Republican friend wrote me of Trump: “He would destroy everything Hillary Clinton would destroy, plus one more thing: the Republican Party.”
Michael Gerson: firstname.lastname@example.org