"The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality."
That line from Dante's "Inferno" was sent to me the other day by my friend Richard Gordon, and it speaks a truth about what is so terribly chilling about the almost unanimous failure of Republican officialdom to take any kind of principled stand on Donald Trump's morally repugnant campaign of reckless conspiracy theory, personal insult, race baiting, and threats to use the power of the presidency to exact personal revenge.
Paul Ryan, John McCain, Mitch McConnell, and almost every other prominent GOP official have been acting as if they can pretend nothing out of the ordinary is happening to their party, express their formulaic Support for the Party's Nominee—and otherwise just lay very low and hope somehow they'll get through it all.
The degree of laying low is truly extraordinary, as Jim Fallows points out at The Atlantic, where he has been blogging on the Trump campaign: not a single GOP official for example uttered a word in reply to Hilary Clinton's full-bore attack on Trump the other day, a silence that is just mind-boggling by any normal political standards.
McCain has been the most extraordinary. Approaching his 80th birthday, facing a tight reelection contest in his heavily Hispanic state of Arizona, McCain, who once gloried in describing himself a "Maverick," has meekly toed the line of endorsing Trump, refusing to challenge any of the candidate's most toxic observations, blandly suggesting that we need not worry Trump will abuse the powers of the presidency since "we're not Romania," yet at the same time vainly hoping to give a wink-wink indication that his endorsement really doesn't mean anything by making little wan wisecracks every now and then, such as starting a speech to a Hispanic business group in Arizona the other day with a little Trumpesque parody ("We're going to make America great again and it's going to be yuge, OK?").
But as Dante observed, moral hedging and timorous acquiescence in the face of evil is even more opprobrious than open support: it palliates the evil, makes it seem ordinary and acceptable to the mass of men always reluctant to rock the boat; it is precisely why good people remain silent until it is too late to do anything.
Perhaps most of the GOP establishment hedgers are banking on Trump's losing the general election, and thus sparing them the difficulty of having to take any real moral stand or commit themselves in public in any way that might hurt their standing in The Party down the road. They clearly are uncomfortable with the open racism of Trump's recent attacks on Judge Curiel, and yet even on an issue that should leave no room for the least moral ambiguity, what we have heard are little more than "I don't condone the comments" (that from Republican Sen. Bob Corker) kinds of tut-tutting.
Interestingly, it was Newt Gingrich, an enthusiastic Trumpista, who was the most firm, calling "inexcusable" Trump's accusation that Curiel has "an inherent conflict of interest" because he's "a Mexican." But then Gingrich immediately undid any moral force behind that indictment by treating Trump's "inexcusable" statement as merely but a little tactical misstep, which he can correct by becoming more polished as he moves into the general election: "He's got to move his game up." (Corker for his part explained that he was not advising Trump to change his views, but merely expressing the hope that the candidate is "talking to the right people" so his campaign can "evolve.")
What will it take for any of the Republican establishment to draw an actual moral line, and say that their nominee is so at odds with the values of the country that they will put their country first, their party second?