Trump's unseriousness and the GOP's moment of truth

The finger-pointing within the Trump campaign has moved to the nation's major networks and that is never a good sign for a campaign. Trump's children blame the senior staff. The senior staff complain they just arrived. Roger Ailes had his people getting out the word that he had nothing to do with the debate prep almost the second the debate itself ended Monday night. As the metaphor goes, the rats are beginning to fear the ship may be sinking, and they are either starting to swim away or at least looking for the exits.

I do not believe the campaign is over yet. Hillary Clinton is always at her worst when she thinks she can coast. Donald Trump righted his campaign after his early defeat in the Iowa caucus and, later, in the Wisconsin primary. Still, his performance Monday night was so revealing, confirmed by his insistence on continuing to engage in the wrong fight, like his bizarre insistence on re-litigating whether Miss Universe had put on too much weight, that the gig may finally be up. A couple of years back, it seemed like you could not pick up a magazine without encountering word "gravitas." It was so commonly thrown around, it went out of style from overuse. Finally, it is the complete and utter absence of gravitas that will doom Trump's campaign and that is as it should be. 

This absence of gravitas has been evident all along. Those who have jumped on the Trump bandwagon because they are low education voters who have felt, rightly, that the establishment gave up on them, they can be forgiven. But, as for the rest, year of mercy or no year of mercy, we should keep a list of names of all those in the political establishment who have no such excuse and yet have backed this man's candidacy.

We all disagree about issues. I disagree with many of my liberal friends about their inability to extend the ethic of solidarity they otherwise champion to unborn children. Even among those who agree with me about the need to fashion some form of legal protection for the unborn, we disagree about how that can be achieved. I disagree with many of my conservative friends because of the ease with which they embrace the market as a generator of solutions to societal problems, or about the urgency of addressing climate change and the need to mobilize our entire society to confront that change. But, we can all agree that these are serious issues.

We also all agree that serious issues warrant, even demand, study and that such study entails listening to others, and not just to "our gut," reading and reflecting on the opinions of people who have studied the issue in greater depth and with more expertise, considering options and the consequences of options insofar as those consequences can be perceived.

The reason to oppose Donald Trump's bid for the presidency is not, ultimately, because his tax plan is a fraud, although it is. The reason to oppose him is not even his lack of typical political experience, because we have elected governors with no foreign policy experience who have gone on to be fine presidents, although I confess to my admiration for a parliamentary/cabinet form of government in which governmental experience is a given. No, the reason to oppose him is because of his utter lack of gravitas, of seriousness, the recognition that reality TV is not reality and it is certainly not like running a state government or a senate committee, and, as demonstrated Monday night, his disinclination to care about the serious issues that he pretends he can solve.

In the face of this fact, what can be the excuse for supporting this man? Speaker Paul Ryan has crafted a reputation for himself as a policy wonk. I happen to disagree with Ryan on many policy details, and think his ideological blinders keep him from reaching the correct conclusions about certain policies, but no matter. Ryan certainly knows that policy matters, that the decisions made in our legislative chambers and in the administrative apparatus of the government affect the lives of the American people in important ways. I have a question for the speaker: What about Trump the man, or Trump the campaign, indicates that he shares your belief that policy is even important?

In 1964, William Buckley met with other conservative leaders in Palm Beach, Fla. (At the Breakers, not at Mar-a-Lago!) They had come to recognize that the John Birch Society was not just a drag on their movement, but a toxin, that their serious concern with Soviet intentions was harmed, not aided, by being associated with a group that claimed Eisenhower was a card-carrying communist. They planned an excommunication and they pulled it off. Buckley related the story in this essay at Commentary in 2008. It is a little too late in the day for a similar meeting to keep the Republican Party and the conservative movement from Trump's similar inanity, and both the party and the movement need to ask themselves what they have done in the past eight or more years to make Trump's ascendancy possible. But, the party and the movement need to do what they can, in the remaining six weeks, to remove however much of the Trump stain they can still get out. Club soda and salt won't do the trick. The faster they disassociate themselves from Trump, the better they will be in the long run.

In their document "Faithful Citizenship," our Catholic bishops speak at length about the responsibility that goes with citizenship. I suppose it did not occur to them to note that those for whom votes are cast must be responsible as well as those casting the votes! They should not jump into the political muck, but they should repeat, perhaps pointedly, what they have written about the seriousness of politics and the goodness of politics, both of which are under assault from Trump in a way that they never have been before by any candidate of any party. And, they can stand up and defend our Latino co-religionists in the face of his brutish and xenophobic attacks.

We will stand before the judgment seat of God someday, and our Lord and Savior has already told us the criteria by which we will be judged: Did we feed him when we found him hungry, slake his thirst, clothe his nakedness, etc. But, we will stand before the judgment of history too, and not in some distant future but in the conversations with our grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the wake of the election, at Thanksgiving and Christmas. They will have every right to ask us what we did to stop Trump from poisoning our political life more than he already has. And, the Republican Party itself needs to ask itself how well they will do relying on the votes of only non-college white men in the future. Their interest in the short term might be to duck or hide. That will become increasingly difficult if the local press does its job and presses down ballot candidates to defend each and every instance of Trump unseriousness. They need to simply accept that this autumn will be grim for them, and look to the long term. They need to disassociate themselves from Trump, withdraw their endorsements, and take their lumps. If they do not denounce his lack of gravitas, they may themselves experience a different kind of gravity, the gravity of a party collapsing. 

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]


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