E.J. Dionne Jr.: Will the GOP repudiate Trump's cruelty?
WASHINGTON — Republican politicians face a choice. They can accept Hillary Clinton's invitation to abandon Donald Trump and prevent a redefinition of their party as a haven for bigotry. Or they can prop Trump up, try to maximize his vote — and thereby tarnish themselves for a generation.
If there were any doubts about Trump's disqualifying lack of simple decency and empathy, he resolved them in an interview on ABC News over the weekend with a characteristically cruel and self-centered attack on Khizr and Ghazala Khan, an American Muslim couple whose son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, was killed in the line of duty in Iraq.
With his wife by his side, Khizr Khan delivered what was the most devastating attack on Trump during the Democratic National Convention. Khan directly challenged Trump's strongman ignorance: "Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy." And he said this of Trump: "You have sacrificed nothing and no one."
Most politicians — most human beings — would have humbly declared that no sacrifice is comparable to losing a son or daughter in service to the nation. Instead, Trump said he had made many sacrifices because (I'm not making this up) he "created thousands and thousands of jobs." He said of Khizr Khan's speech: "Who wrote that? Did Hillary's scriptwriters write it?"
And then he broke new ground, even for him, in heartlessness. "His wife," Trump said, "if you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn't allowed to have something to say."
Every Republican politician and commentator who continues to say that Trump is a superior or even morally equivalent choice to Hillary Clinton will now own their temporary leader's brutality for the rest of their political careers.
Many humane Republicans know this. Ohio Gov. John Kasich spoke for them when he tweeted that "there's only one way to talk about Gold Star parents: with honor and respect."
This is a moment of truth for GOP leaders who passively accepted and sometimes encouraged an extremism that trafficked in religious and racial prejudice and painted President Obama as an illegitimate, power-hungry leader.
The party's traditional chieftains assumed they could use these themes to rally an angry, aging base of white voters while keeping the forces of right-wing radicalism under control. They did not anticipate Trump. He spent years courting the far right with his charges that Obama was born abroad and set himself up in contrast to an establishment that cynically exploited its feelings.
Now, in Ronald Reagan's revered phrase, comes a time for choosing. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell look feeble and vacillating when they try to distance themselves from Trump outrages while maintaining their support for his election. They embody a calculating timidity as they worry about Trump's impact on their party while also fearing for the electoral chances of the rest of their candidates if they push away Trump's constituency.
Khizr Khan called their bluff in an interview on Friday with MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell: "This is a moral imperative for both leaders, to say to him, 'Enough.'" Had Trump been watching, he would have known that Ghazala Khan also spoke out. Her reticence at the convention, she explained, arose from grief over her lost son that made it difficult even to talk about him. She powerfully made her point again in an essay published online Sunday morning by The Washington Post.
Up to now, it has fallen largely to conservative intellectuals and former Republican officials to express their horror over Trump's amoral approach to politics, his incoherent, dictator-friendly foreign policy, and his racist, exclusionary definition of what it means to be an American.
A Democratic convention awash in American flags celebrated American diversity in the name of a very old ideal most conservatives share: that we are a country bound by ideas, not a nation defined by blood, soil or a single religious tradition.
By contrasting Reagan's "Morning in America" to Trump's "Midnight in America," Clinton invited such conservatives to abide a term of her leadership in order to avoid the damage a self-involved practitioner of a nasty brand of flimflam could do to their cause and their country.
Clinton Republicans and ex-Republicans could thus be this generation's Reagan Democrats. In repudiating Trump for Clinton, they will not be abandoning their ideology. They will be making a moral statement that their movement will not tolerate an opportunist so corrupt and so vile that, when given a choice, he pandered to religious intolerance rather than honoring the sacrifice of a brave young American.
E.J. Dionne's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne.