Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
“John Miller” and “John Barron” — the phony publicist names Donald Trump used in the 1980s and 1990s to brag about women and other matters — remind us just how bizarrely needy and dishonest Trump can be. He may not be a world-class businessman (refusing to turn over his tax returns suggests he may have exaggerated his wealth, as he does everything else), but he is a world-class narcissist (he could not pay a real publicist to brag on his behalf?) and liar (both in the initial charade and his recent denial).
It is peculiar that his devoted followers who dub Hillary Clinton so untrustworthy as to be disqualified from the presidency and fumed over President Obama’s falsehoods (“If you like your doctor. . .”) are now so willing to disregard evidence of his monumental, almost pathetic character flaws. Can someone as rich and famous be so needy after decades in the public eye — and so determined to maintain his facade of lies to protect his frail ego? It seems so.
As we see Trump blunder his way through the early days of his general election campaign, it is evident that no reversal (on his tax plan or disclosure of his own taxes, for example), no revelation about his jaw-dropping character defects and no demonstration of ignorance will be sufficient to dislodge the true believers or those whose opportunism has consumed them. That group is some proportion of the nearly 11 million Republicans and independents who have voted for him in the primaries. But what about the approximately 16 million who voted for other Republicans candidates and the tens of millions more he will need to win the general election? There is still hope to educate and rouse those whom he must convert to the cause. And it is here where his mound of problems accumulates and threatens to bury him.
The Trump folk and many wishful voices in the media (either those enabling Trump or simply hoping for a close, exciting race) act as though Trump’s current level of support is his floor. Perhaps, but it is equally possible it’s his ceiling and things get worse from here on out as he gets cornered on one lie after another. He will be caught unprepared on a bevy of issues and will time and again resort to threats and outbursts when critics do not accede to his will. Moreover, it is hard to imagine already Democratic-leaning groups (e.g., women, young voters, minorities) reconsidering their distaste for Trump; it is far more likely Trump will enrage them and deepen their antipathy in the months ahead.
From 1992 through 2012, Democrats won 23 states plus the District of Columbia in all six elections, giving them 242 electoral votes, or 89 percent needed to win. Conversely, Republicans have won just 13 states with 102 electoral votes six times in a row, constituting 38 percent of the electoral vote.
Some have dubbed this a “Blue Wall” of states that at least these days give Democrats a strong natural advantage. Demographic changes are mainly responsible. In 1992, when Bill Clinton was first elected, 87 percent of the national electorate was white; by 2012, the white share had dropped 15 points to 72 percent. Population changes since 2012 may have dropped the white share another 2 to 4 points.
So Trump starts off with the challenge that any Republican would have, but the real-estate mogul’s political problems with certain voter groups aggravate the situation.
Consider, then, the dilemma the Republicans who have tied themselves to his mast are in. They are stuck defending his policy gyrations (many of which will repudiate conservatives’ views that they’ve clung to for decades) and excusing inexcusable behavior. They now have to write off scandal, character defects and abject lack of preparation. Meanwhile, the electoral college overwhelmingly favors a Clinton win. Put differently, they will go through the agony and embarrassment of defending Trump while facing almost certain defeat. It is one thing to fight an honorable, losing cause; it is another to sacrifice honor for a humiliating loss.
At the end of the campaign, their policy stances eviscerated, their vitriol at fellow conservatives overflowing and their political judgment mocked, the pro-Trump forces may no longer be in a position to lead a united party. Meanwhile, the #NeverTrump forces’ disdain and amazement at Trumpkins’ affinity for self-delusion grows with each cringe-worthy episode. The former’s new perspective on their fellow Republicans provides newfound perspective and maturity, allowing them to step outside the right-wing echo chamber and ignore, maybe permanently, talk show hosts’ inanities. One senses it is more likely after six more months of this that Trump will have succeeded in shredding the GOP “brand” and widening the chasm between the two sides of the party to such an extent that the conservative movement will require a new party or a Republican Party with an entire new cast of characters, outlook and mode of operation.
Trump is taking a wrecking ball to the GOP’s chances in November. Along the way, however, he also is destroying the careers of dozens of national Republicans who will be discredited by their association with him. Perhaps a fresh start is needed, but in any event, it’s beginning to look like conservatives will need to reconstruct a political party out of 2016’s debris. The hard work surely won’t be done by those insisting Trump’s lies, deception and ignorance are all beside the point. Actually, Trump has become the ultimate litmus test of character and political credibility. And each day Republicans come forward, either to pass or fail. Conservatives are keeping score.