There’s a standard question asked of candidates for a party’s nomination, one intended to test their party loyalty and, perhaps, their arrogance. It’s a simple question: will you support the party’s nominee, even if it’s not you?
But in a recent Republican presidential debate, the question played differently, and the answers themselves raise an interesting question.
The question posed to Governor Kasich and Senators Cruz and Rubio was, would they support the Republican nominee even if it was Donald Trump? The answer, from each of them, was yes.
In most election cycles and with most candidates, that answer would be unsurprising, the question hardly worth asking. Of course one supports the nominee of one’s party, at least officially. One supports the nominee because one generally believes one’s party has the right ideas and the other party does not. Besides, it’s in one’s political interest; next time, one may be the nominee seeking that support.
But this cycle isn’t like most, as evidenced by the way the question was personalized.
Watching the ads being run against Donald Trump and listening to the statements these candidates have made on the stump, one gets the sense that Donald Trump is an existential threat to something important.
Maybe it’s the Republican Party that is threatened.
When faced with a different (but to some, equally distasteful) candidate for high office, David Duke, the Republican Party leadership repudiated him even though he was the party’s nominee for U.S. Senate.
But this is a different candidate, and a different calculation.
Donald Trump is the party’s frontrunner for the presidential nomination, not a Senate or House seat. A split at the top of the ticket is quite likely to rip right down to the lowest levels of party organization and into the electorate itself. Most recently, we saw that effect with the revolt of the Dixiecrats that arguably cost the Democrats the White House in 1968 and the South in later years. Those are high stakes indeed.
Might it be better for the party, if Donald Trump is going to sink Republican chances, to go down with him and then swim back to the surface once the wave of public revulsion passes by?
There is a sense, however, that the threat being identified is to something greater than party. Describing Trump as “dangerous,” questioning whether one would want a man of his temperament sitting next to the red phone, with the power to launch our nuclear arsenal, and with an amplified megaphone to sling his insults and threats at allies and adversaries alike, sounds like an expression of concern for the future of our country.
If that’s the threat they see, one would expect the candidates to refuse to support Donald Trump, putting love of country above love of party (and above future political aspirations). I certainly have spoken with ordinary folks of reliable Republican sympathies who plan to vote for the Democratic nominee, whoever it is, on precisely these grounds.
Yet here are the candidates telling us, with one breath, that Trump is a threat to our nation, and promising to support him with the next.
If we want to understand the raging disaffection evident in the Republican electorate, we need look no farther than that moment on stage.
How often have we heard candidates in primaries tell us that the world is going to end (in some fashion) if they are defeated and their opponent nominated? And how often do these candidates embrace on stage and pay lip service to the virtue of the other once the nomination fight is over?
There is a thing called courtesy, or decency, or civility, that urges us to be “good sports” when the campaign is over. Those are virtues in politics as they are in private life.
But those same virtues also urge us not to insult our rivals and not to lie about them. Those virtues would compel us not to suggest that our rivals would betray us all for pride, or pique, or profit . . . unless, in truth, we believe that they would.
If a candidate (whichever candidate) really is as dangerous for the nation as we are being told Donald Trump is, shouldn’t those who proclaim the danger be the first to vote against the threat?
And if the danger isn’t as dire, then in justice and in decency, shouldn’t they stop saying that it is?