Opinion

Abandon Trump!

Don't go down with the ship, Republicans

With Special Counsel Robert Mueller's flurry of news — including the indictment of President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and the guilty plea of George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to Trump — the metaphorical noose is tightening around America's 45th president. We're not yet in impeachment territory. But the most plausible scenario is now that by putting the screws to Manafort and his also-indicted business partner Rick Gates, Mueller will find his way to potentially serious allegations against Trump. Indeed, the indictments are almost certainly specifically intended as a way for Mueller to get to Trump's inner circle by putting pressure on Manafort and Gates. You don't need to believe that Trump is a Manchurian candidate; you just have to recall that this is the law of special prosecutors. There's always something. We commit three felonies per day. Once a prosecutor with limitless resources is on you, it's not a matter of if, but when.

This is the reality. There's no denying it. And this means that Republican leaders must decide now what to do with the fact that President Trump will be the focus of a scandal that will rank at least above Bill Clinton's impeachment trial in terms of gravity, even if it doesn't reach the level of Watergate.

And at this point, sadly, Republican lawmakers' behavior is quite predictable. They've tied themselves to the mast of the ship of Trump. They believe they need to stay close to him because otherwise their base will rebel. And if their base rebels, there goes their congressional majority, and there goes their already slim chance of passing the sort of agenda they've been dying to pass since they lost their last congressional majority.

The foolishness of this strategy is aptly captured by Winston Churchill's famous response to the Munich Accords: "You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war." I am not comparing Trump to Hitler, or the stakes here to the stakes of World War II. But this sentiment perfectly describes the vacuity of the GOP's calculus.

Never mind for a moment whether it's honorable for Republicans to defend Trump against the charges related to Russian meddling (and while some allegations are fantastical, many are highly troubling). It's also idiotically bad politics. If and when it becomes clear that Trump either committed felonies during his campaign, or knew about others who did and didn't do anything about it, whatever they are, the Republicans who defended him will be humiliated and the country's disgust will wash over them like a tsunami.

Trump does have a fanatical base of supporters, and it's almost certain that some number of them will always dismiss even the smokiest of smoking guns as #fakenews. But those supporters are hardly the majority of the country; they're probably not even the majority of the Republican Party. What's more, most of them are only accidental Trump supporters. Republicans fear their base because they see things like right-wing upstart Roy Moore's victory in the GOP Senate primary in Alabama despite his embarrassing lack of qualifications. But they forget that Trump endorsed Moore's establishmentarian opponent. Trump's base isn't personally loyal to him; it is only loyal to him insofar as he is a vehicle for their grievances. The base will only be appeased if and when its grievances are addressed in some way; Trump personally is neither here nor there.

The memory of Bill Clinton's impeachment trial might reassure Republicans: Clinton did commit a felony (perjury), he did face an impeachment trial, his did party stick by him, and in the end he rode it out and finished his presidency with record highs of popularity. Then again, the lingering effects of that whole drama probably cost Democrats the presidency in 2000.

The situation today is completely different. Clinton had a genius for triangulation, and happened to ride a massive stock market wave that lifted all economic boats and his approval ratings in the process. Trump's genius — and it is genius, of a kind — is not for triangulation, but for polarization, which has unquestionably proved useful at some things, but is the opposite of what's needed to make the public's mushy middle give you a pass on potentially impeachable misdeeds. As while Trump's economy is doing much better than a few years ago, neither do citizens feel the way they felt during the go-go late '90s, when they were on such an economic high that they were willing to give their president a pass on an extramarital affair. And that is the final point: There's a big difference between being guilty of an extramarital affair (try as Republicans might have, going blue in the face, to cast the issue as one of perjury, moral virtue, and sexual harassment, that message didn't stick with the American public) and being guilty of a potential breach of national security.

Which brings us to the impending disaster for Republicans. However bad voters feel about Trump, they will feel worse about Republicans who abetted him for political gain, even though everyone in the country knows they disagree with his ideas and despise him politically.

The Republican Party might be able to ride out Trump's self-destructive unpopularity if it tried as hard as possible to separate Trump's brand from its own. Instead it is doing almost everything to join them together.

The party had to choose between dishonor and destruction. It chose dishonor, and with every passing day it looks increasingly likely it will get destruction.

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