Friday, July 29, 2016

"The lunatic fringe that has taken over the Republican Party"

The words in the headline above come from David Brooks, one of the principled conservatives horrified by what is happening to his party — and who is actually willing to utter the fact out loud.

I've been at a loss for months to understand how anyone can fail to see Trump for what he so plainly is. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke for all of us with Bronx blood in our veins (only by inheritance in my case, but it's there), when he said at the Democratic convention this week, "I'm a New Yorker, and New Yorkers know a con when we see one."

But much more, I have been sick at heart by the moral equivocations of Republican leaders who cannot even offer the excuse of gullibility for their temporizing. By their private comments, GOP leaders like John McCain, Paul Ryan, and many others have made it clear they are fully aware  how unprincipled, unqualified, unstable, and dangerous Trump is; yet they have lacked the ability to summon even one ounce of moral courage to break with him publicly or rescind their endorsements.

Is there anything that will finally force them to say "enough"? Most are clearly betting that Trump will lose, and that they will then be able to emerge, unscathed, from behind the trees where they have been cowering while others fight the battle. And I suspect if they have made it this far, they are simply beyond the reach of shame, much less reason.

Mostly as an exercise in clinging to reason at a time when insanity has become the norm for a frightening segment of the polity, I have been thinking about what to say to Republicans still trying to pretend that Trump is a normal candidate, or a valid representative of a principled conservatism.

1. First and foremost, the man is — literally — mentally unbalanced. And it goes well beyond his textbook symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. His megalomania frequently erupts in a grandiosity of expression that is not normally encountered outside of a mental institution: "I alone can fix" what is wrong with America; "Now it was the summer of Trump, it was the autumn of Trump, it was the Christmas of Trump. It was everything"; "People are saying Donald Trump is a genius."

His embrace of dozens of lunatic-fringe conspiracy theories reflects a frighteningly untethered relationship with reality that in any normal moment would be the instant end of a political career. Trump's barrage of conspiratorial tweets and statements have accused President Obama of secretly siding with ISIS; claimed that government scientists hid the truth about the Ebola virus; insisted that "thousand and thousands" of Muslim Americans in New Jersey "cheered" when the Twin Towers fell on 9/11; declared that doctors "lied" in "fudged up reports" regarding the safety of childhood vaccines; said that Ted Cruz's father was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy; that the Clintons may have murdered Vince Foster; that Antonin Scalia's death may not have been natural.

When challenged on some of these more unhinged assertions, Trump has defended them by citing as his sources articles in the National Enquirer or right-wing-conspiracy-theory, white-supremacist, and neo-Nazi websites (including one that claims the 9/11 attacks was "an inside job") — or even, in the case of those "thousands and thousands" of cheering Muslims, by insisting that he himself saw it on TV, even though nothing of the kind ever happened.

Even after being confronted with a video of Donald J. Trump expressing his support for the Iraq War, Trump has continued to insist repeatedly that he always opposed the war.

Last fall, on national television, he bragged of having met Russian leader Vladimir Putin: “I got to know him very well because we were both on ‘60 Minutes,’ we were stablemates, and we did very well that night.” Last week he said, "I never met Putin. I don’t know who Putin is."

That any responsible political leader of any major political party could think of entrusting the most powerful office in the world to a man who has manifested so little attachment to reality is something we just could not have conceived of before now.

These are not the normal equivocations or shading of truth that we all engage in, politicians perhaps more than others: Trump's ability to lie without batting an eye falls in the realm of psychopathology.

One of the most truly bizarre manifestations of this was an obviously forged letter he produced last December, supposedly from his doctor, attesting to the candidate's "extraordinary" health. Written in  language that no doctor would use, but full of the childish superlatives that Trump always uses, the letter praised Trump's "astonishingly excellent" lab test results and declared that "he will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency."

This alone ought to be enough to convince anyone that far from being "extraordinarily" healthy, the man is "extraordinarily" sick.

2. His business dealings and personal life demonstrate a moral depravity that disqualifies him from any public trust. Trump has repeatedly broken the promises he made to local officials to secure approval for his building and casino projects, defaulted on loans that he obtained through misrepresentation and exaggeration, defrauded small contractors and suppliers by the dozens, bragged of committing adultery with numerous "seemingly happily married women," took his businesses into bankruptcy four times, scammed thousands of trusting believers of as much as $60,000 apiece with his fraudulent "Trump University," ran a bogus multilevel vitamin marketing scheme that quickly failed as did a series of other self-promoting "businesses" (Trump vodka, steaks, magazine, airline, mortgage company).

He has never shown any remorse for those he hurt, lied to, stole from, or ruined. At no time in his entire life has he placed a principle above self-interest. He has reneged on his (apparently already meager) charitable contributions; he has threatened to use the power of the presidency to punish those who have criticized him in the press; he has gleefully inflamed the worst unreasoning passions of hatred, fear, and prejudice for his own gain; he has glorified violence and domination while deriding the weak and vulnerable including even those suffering from physical disabilities; he has routinely mocked women who fail to meet his adolescent picture of female pulchritude (referring once to "guys who have 400-pound wives at home who are jealous of me").

"He is a morally untethered, spiritually vacuous man," wrote David Brooks this week.

Peter Wehner, an evangelical Christian and conservative who served in three Republican administrations, went further, describing his dismay that any of his fellow evangelicals would swallow the moral degeneracy of "a man whose words and actions are so at odds with the central teachings of our faith . . . integrity, compassion and reasoned convictions, wisdom and prudence, trustworthiness, a commitment to the moral good."

These personal traits matter, Wehner emphasized, because a man lacking in basic compassion and empathy is fundamentally unfit to hold power over others, especially in a nation built on the democratic values of liberty, respect for the equal worth of all men, and shared participation in the job of governance:

"Trump’s entire approach to politics rests on dehumanization. If you disagree with him or oppose him, you are not merely wrong. You are worthless, stripped of dignity, the object of derision. This attitude is central to who Mr. Trump is and explains why it pervades and guides his campaign. If he is elected president, that might-makes-right perspective would infect his entire administration."

3. Trump's ignorance and reckless positions threaten the security of the nation — and the world. The most astonishing contradiction in Trump's rhetorical attacks has been his simultaneous insistence that America "should stop apologizing" and show "strength" and his almost casual calls for abandoning the very pillars of American foreign policy that have for 70 years upheld America's strength, leadership, and security throughout the world.

He has proposed that the United States not honor its commitment to its allies unless they "pay"; might not bother to defend the Baltic nations if they were attacked by Russia; and should consider recognizing Putin's unilateral annexation of Crimea, carried out by force and in violation of international law.

He said the the U.S. had "no right to lecture" Turkey about the rule of law because we have problems "in our own country."

His suggestion this week that Russia should hack Hilary Clinton's emails and release them was so mind-boggling that members of the Republican foreign policy establishment were literally left speechless. To state the obvious, what would have been the reaction from the Rush Limbaugh crowd had a Democrat uttered such a treasonous suggestion as to invite a hostile foreign power to meddle in an American presidential election?

Trump has repeatedly boasted that he has no need for foreign policy consultants: he consults himself, he explained, because "I have a very good brain." He never reads books; he apparently does not read policy papers; he regularly shows a massive ignorance of Constitutional powers, the most basic facts of America's treaties, and the most cursory lessons of US military and diplomatic history.

Former Republican state department official Eliot Cohen summed up the despair he and his colleagues feel about Trump's reckless willingness to destroy the successful two-generation consensus on foreign policy that "American interests were ineluctably intertwined with American values, and that when possible, each should reinforce the other, as when the promotion of liberty and human rights helped to weaken the Soviet Union."

Trump's "temperament, his proclivity for insult and deceit and his advocacy of unpredictability would make him a presidential disaster — especially in the conduct of foreign policy, where clarity and consistency matter," Cohen wrote.

A final thought: I have told several of my Republican friends that were the shoe on the other foot — were the Democrats ever to nominate for the presidency a person so obviously unfit by character, demagoguery, and mental instability to hold office — I would not hesitate to vote for any non-insane candidate of the opposing party. It would not be a matter of the "lesser of two evils"; it would not be "holding my nose in the voting booth": it would be saving the American dream of democratic government that George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln, and FDR, and millions of ordinary Americans lived and died fighting to protect.

One final quote this week from a horrified former Republican presidential campaign manager:

"Hillary has some baggage, but Trump is crazy. And you can’t fix crazy."