The GOP's Morning After

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally Monday, March 7, 2016, in Madison, Miss. (AP Ph
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally Monday, March 7, 2016, in Madison, Miss. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Repugnant beyond redemption.

Whatever its dire implications, for a time the GOP presidential race had the terrible fascination of a multi-car collision. No more. Now we can see the casualties close-up -- reason, dignity, honesty and hope. And, not least, a once great political party reduced to the intellectual and moral level of a mindless fraternity house.

In belatedly attacking the repulsive Donald Trump, the party establishment and also-rans have stripped bare his appalling candidacy without giving voters a plausible alternative. The residue evokes that abysmal frat house the morning after a drunken party -- stubbed cigarette butts leaving burn holes in the coffee table; a carpet stained with red wine spills; an acrid smell whose origins are nauseating to consider. A sodden lout is sprawled on the couch, snoring with his mouth agape; a pale young woman in the bathroom applies lipstick with trembling hands, dimly recalling the shame she wishes to forget. All one can do is rush outside, desperate for a gulp of air.

Faced with such debris, it seems almost trivial to analyze the political fallout. But it can be gamed out easily enough.

However damaged, Trump stands atop a scrum of rivals diminished in stature and prospects. Rubio has shrunk to his actual size, retreating to Florida as though it were Elba. Cruz has introduced America to the sanctimonious and treacherous tactician his colleagues loathe, shedding the evangelicals he so badly needs. With admirable persistence, Kasich is calling for uplift in a political landscape polluted by insults and lies, a thick smog of anger choking his intended audience.

The primary calendar remains Trump's friend . Over the weekend he added a brace of delegates by winning in Louisiana and Kentucky -- albeit by lesser margins than expected, reflecting a slippage in late deciders. Continuing a pattern, Cruz took two closed caucuses in Maine and Kansas, but has yet to win a primary outside his home state. Rubio's decline accelerated despite the asterisk of Puerto Rico; Kasich achieved next to nothing.

Though very late polling suggests that Kasich is on the rise in Michigan, by tomorrow morning, in all likelihood, Michigan and Mississippi will have padded Trump's delegate count. Alone among the contenders, he has scored victories in all regions; his demographic reaches from blue-collar voters to evangelicals and so-called moderates. His sole ideology, anger and frustration, is the new opium of the GOP masses.

This despite another wretched debate swathed in Trump's trademark squalor. His favorite organ, he advised us, is the equivalent of those "97 story buildings" he boasts of erecting. Otherwise, it was the same now-stale act -- insults, boasting, misstatements of fact and empty promises of greatness personified by "Trump" alone. Enduring four years of this from our president would resemble being relentlessly pounded over the head with a bag of sand until one succumbs to stultitude.

But what Republican can now stop him? That Marco Rubio is the establishment hope captures his hopelessness -- and theirs. True, he appeals to affluent Republicans with private club manners for whom Mitt Romney was their kind. But he can't hijack the evangelicals, or persuasively channel Trump's angry populist appeal. Worse, the reality of Rubio has been exposed -- a candidate without a core, too callow and shallow to persuasively fill the office he seeks.

Ted Cruz? It is hard to imagine him cleaning up in delegate-rich states like California and New York, whose populace is not drawn to a hard-line conservatism wherein the smarmily pious Cruz summons a political Rapture. And John Kasich still appears better suited to another year, in a party which has voided its toxins.

At this point in the calendar, it seems clear that none of them can stack up enough delegates to win outright. So now the establishment strategy is to deny Trump a majority of delegates by keeping all three rivals in the race from now until the convention. The idea is that Rubio takes Florida; Kasich Ohio; and Cruz a few conservative bastions, after which they collectively win enough states to block Trump's path.

This, at best, is deeply problematic. As a matter of arithmetic, it is certainly possible to deny Trump the roughly 54 percent of delegates he would need to win from here on out. But Rubio, Cruz and Kasich are like the occupants of a life raft, allies by necessity, yet eyeing each other with self-interest and suspicion. Sooner or later, cannibalism will ensue.

Indeed, Ted Cruz is already poised to take the first bite -- by investing more resources in Florida, he hopes to take votes from Rubio, effectively delivering the state to Trump. This will hardly be the last instance where, by accident or design, one of the also-rans snacks on another -- Cruz in particular still seems bent on driving his rivals from the race. This go-it-alone strategy involves a very high-risk gamble: that in a two-man race Cruz can force the potentially volatile Trump to implode, having first helped him compile a daunting delegate lead.

Yet the establishment's stop-Trump strategy requires all three also-rans to live -- especially, and ironically, Cruz, second only to Trump in filling the GOP establishment with fear and loathing. A special problem is that Rubio, fading badly, is another key component. The scenario for deadlock requires him -- or Kasich -- to ward off The Donald in mainstream states with large urban populations, venues where, no matter what he may imagine, Cruz is unlikely to thrive in a one on one race against Trump. But to survive Rubio must win Florida -- if he does not, it is hard to conceive what would sustain him in the miserable weeks to come.

All this illustrates the problem with assuming that each of Trump's rivals can appropriate pieces of the electoral map. That construct is like a tower of building blocks assembled by a two-year-old: snatch away the blocks marked "Ohio" or "Florida" and the whole thing topples. Unless Kasich and Rubio beat him in their home states a week from today, Trump will seize a prohibitive delegate lead in a matchup with Cruz. Even a victory in one of those states would give him a commanding margin in a race where Cruz and whoever else survives are still dividing votes.

But let us suppose, however improbably, that the ill-matched trio make it ashore in Cleveland, and then manage to stop a wounded Trump on the first ballot. What is to keep one of them from then cutting a deal with Trump? And, if not, what awaits them? A fractured party; a mass of alienated Trump supporters; a potential third-party which splits the GOP vote. In this environment, it seems unlikely that any of them can hold the GOP together.

So who is the Savior? Mitt Romney? The base would spit him out. Paul Ryan? If Ryan remains sane, he will flee this invitation as though it were ebola. Presiding over the insane asylum which is the Republican House is sacrifice enough.

The absolute last gasp of poison gas is the idea of a third party should Trump prevail. Let me venture a fearless prediction -- no elected official with any interest in their future will throw themselves on this funeral pyre. (Bill Kristol, chronic promoter of fools like Dan Quayle and Sarah Palin, has offered up Dick Cheney. I can't shake the idea of his campaign theme song: "Where have you gone, Richard Bruce Cheney? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.") Whatever comes of this idea will be pitiful indeed.

So now we have dispensed with the all too grim horserace. The larger question is when, if ever, the established GOP will take responsibility for the rise of Donald Trump.

Last week, several New York Times reporters exchanged anecdotes about when they first thought the threat of Trump was real. The median date fell in the latter part of 2015. So where was the Republican establishment all this time?

The answer is simple: living out the Faustian bargain through which they had long since swapped their political souls for dwindling pieces of Republican turf. Last week, a few GOP professionals surfaced with the truth. Having failed in his effort to raise money from GOP donors to fight Trump from the start, consultant Alex Castellanos wrote: "If our self-indulgent Republican Party establishment had really wanted to prevent a takeover of the GOP, they should not have gorged on political power while they failed to do anything to prevent the decline of the country. Our leaders could have led. They could have done more than say 'no' to Democrats while offering no alternative."

Veteran strategist Scott Reed remarked: "I'm amazed that people are acting surprised. Trump has been building for months, and the voters are speaking." And media mastermind Mike Murphy stated the obvious -- that Trump "would set the party back decades."

Yet the sustained obliviousness of the GOP elite was truly impressive. The pompous panjandrums of the Wall Street Journal now wax indignant that Donald Trump has jumped the traces of bellicosity, free trade, and privatizing Social Security. Here is the small detail they've missed: The GOP has been offering the embattled middle and working classes tax cuts for the wealthy, wars they don't want, and trade policies which leave them fearful for their jobs. In thrall to a political orthodoxy dear to the donor classes, the Republican establishment has lost touch with the base, believing that rhetorical red meat was enough to satiate the great unwashed.

Now comes Trump, promising healthcare "to take care of everybody"; vowing to protect entitlement programs; and blaming Republican free-market policies for the plight of working people. Belatedly, the Republican elite is discovering the truth -- when it comes to ideological purity, most voters care much more about the reality of their own lives. And a whole lot of them think that the GOP establishment has sold them down the river of free trade, lining its own pockets in the bargain.

This divide between the establishment and Trump supporters is a scalding rebuke to the politics of plutocracy. Which makes risible the establishment's warnings that Trump is playing these folks for fools. Who do they think wrote that playbook?

But looking in the mirror overtaxes their gifts for introspection. Hence -- having awakened like Rip van Winkle the day after Super Tuesday -- their tardy and often hypocritical efforts to excommunicate Donald Trump.

Mitt Romney gave the speech of his lifetime, a comprehensive and searing excoriation of Trump's intellectual and personal unfitness. No minced words -- it was perhaps Romney's finest political hour, and one of the few good ones in this pitiful GOP campaign.

Romney reminded evangelicals about Trump's values, such as they are. He informed struggling Americans of the many ways that Trump has exploited their fellow workers. He awakened those worried about national security to Trump's stupefying ignorance of geopolitics and military affairs. He advised those enamored with Trump's business career that it is pocked with fraud and failure. He even extracted a little payback for John McCain, his erstwhile rival, noting that when McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, the draft-avoidant Trump was racking up sexual scores so as to regale the world with his manliness.

But the GOP should have said all this six months ago, in a swelling chorus -- Trump's odious qualities were ever in plain sight. His putrid response to Romney was embarrassingly typical of all that has come before -- recycled insults and boasts, delivered in semi-coherent sentence fragments. There was nothing which involved anything but himself -- not a a policy, not a thought. Just another chapter in the annals of his repulsiveness -- in 2012, Trump informed us, Romney "was begging for my endorsement. I could've said, 'Mitt, drop to your knees.'"

This should have been a telling moment, confirming all that Romney said. But at this late date the message was blunted and, for some, incendiary. The truth of Romney's jeremiad was eclipsed by speculation that he is angling to become the party's savior. And, quite predictably, Trump supporters were infuriated by what they saw as another condescending message from the face of the elite.

Yet suddenly the establishment was transfixed by its own righteous indignation. A cadre of billionaires, at last perceiving that they are losing their grip on power, coalesced to spend millions on air time for scathing attack ads trashing Trump. Eleventh hour denunciations rained down on Trump from all quarters of the GOP establishment -- business interests, foreign policy mavens, elected officials.The two Whitmans -- Meg and Christine Todd -- respectively called Trump "a dishonest demagogue" and accused him of "hate-mongering and racism."

Truly, did they just discover this? Given the tone the GOP has struck on immigrants and Muslims, including American citizens, did they really think all this is unique to Donald Trump? What about Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio? Or, for that matter, the Republicans in 2012?

But the questions abound. Where were all these worthies when Ted Cruz and a cabal of Tea party fanatics were shutting down the government? When birthers were inflaming the Republican electorate with race-based denunciations of Obama? Or when all 300 elected Republicans in the House and Senate voted against the Iran deal, taking a grave foreign-policy issue down the same low road of cynical partisan politics.

Where were these tribunes of truth when the GOP became a fact free zone -- immune to climate science, claiming that massive tax cuts could help balance the budget, rewriting history to blame partisan rancor solely on Barack Obama? Where were they when the kids of the less fortunate were being squandered in the neoconservatives' tragic misadventure in Iraq? Where were they when the anxious middle class was sliding into insecurity and despair?

And where were they eight months ago, when this man they so deplore was using racist dog whistles to run away in the polls -- and with their party?

They were tending to their own parochial interests beneath a self-serving cone of silence, while ignoring that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were shamelessly echoing Trump's rhetoric about Mexicans and Muslims. One must say it -- the glee with which they seized on Trump's stupidity regarding David Duke as a fig leaf for theatrical outrage is a classic of pretext and hypocrisy. What courage indeed it takes to denounce the Ku Klux Klan.

In truth, Trump is not an accident thrust by fate on an undeserving party. He is a mirror of what the GOP has become. He is, quite simply, a particularly embarrassing manifestation of the party's aversion to fact, appeals to fear, immunity to reason, and nihilistic denunciations of government as the source of all our problems. The GOP has offered America no concrete solutions -- instead, it has stoked political distemper for its own self-serving ends, re- packaged in absurd and cynical dumbshows like the 70 or so votes to defund Obamacare. It has abdicated any claim to serious governance, let alone to be the steward of our collective future .

It should not be this way. Americans deserve real arguments and real choices grounded in the real world, not a Democratic president elected by default. Should the party someday right its course, and reenter the realm of reason, the country will be better off.

Let us hope. Until then, the GOP is the party which degraded itself and so gave us Donald Trump -- not the other way around.