I first saw the news about Orlando at 6 o’clock on Sunday morning. I couldn’t sleep, so I started scrolling through Twitter, where a steady stream of breaking news led to a familiar pit in my stomach. First, it was a shooting. Then it was a shooting at a gay nightclub. Then it was a mass shooting at a gay nightclub. Reports of 20 dead … then 40 … then 49. And then, as if it all weren’t horrifying enough, we learned that the killer had called 911 to pledge allegiance to ISIS.
I watched far too many of these national tragedies unfold from my vantage point as a White House speechwriter, and after a while, you start to notice a pattern. In the first hours, there is a sad and quiet calm to the public conversation. On social media, there are expressions of sorrow and disbelief, offers of prayer and condolences. On television, we see journalists at their best — on location, asking questions, chasing down leads, keeping us informed of every new detail. We’re devastated, but we’re family — grieving together for the victims and their loved ones.
It doesn’t take long for politics to creep into the discussion, and the grace period seems to grow shorter with each new tragedy. We go on to debate guns and terrorism and hate crimes, immigration and civil rights and civil liberties — all issues worth debating, all issues where people from across the spectrum make fair and well-meaning arguments every day.
Inevitably, though, some of our fellow citizens will exercise their constitutional right to say the stupidest possible thing at the worst possible moment — words that lack not just political correctness, but common decency and respect; lies and innuendo are used to incite fear and suspicion. Often this comes in the form of a bigoted Twitter egg or a hateful comment on Facebook. Sometimes you hear a revolting conspiracy theory on talk radio or a dog whistle that some cable pundit blows a little too hard. Once in a while, a Senate candidate or congressman launches into a crass and offensive tirade that goes viral. And almost always, it’s best to ignore this fringe lunacy, so that the rest of us can go back to grieving, healing, and debating how to prevent another attack.
But today, we can’t just ignore the lunatic du jour, because he’s one of only two people in America who could become the next president of the United States.
One of Donald Trump’s first reactions to the massacre in Orlando, tweeted while the families of the victims were still being notified, was to pat himself on the back: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.”
It turned out to be the high point of his response.
Over the next 48 hours, Trump demanded that presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton drop out of the race, called on President Obama to resign, and accused the president of treason, suggesting that the man Trump has long believed to be a foreign citizen is collaborating with ISIS. When The Washington Post reported these comments, Trump added the newspaper to the lengthy blacklist of journalists and organizations that are now banned from covering his campaign. He then expanded his proposed ban on Muslims to include any immigrant from a country with a history of terrorism (which would presumably include places like France and the U.K.), and suggested with absolutely no evidence that America’s 3 million Muslims know who the terrorists are among us, but refuse to turn them in — a refusal that should lead to, in his words, “consequences. Big consequences.”
It is nearly impossible to keep up with each new development in Trump’s psychotic meltdown. Since I began writing this piece, he has also accused U.S. soldiers of stealing money from Iraq, doubled down on the insanity that Obama is an ISIS sympathizer, and remarked that “Belgium is a beautiful city.” By the time you read this, Trump will have probably trained his witch hunt on some new target, but now that he’s gone after Muslims, Latinos, Mexicans, African Americans, Asians, Jews, women, federal judges, POWs, the troops, the media, the disabled, and the Pope, I’m not sure who’s left.
As a Democrat, I suppose I should be happy that the Republican Party is about to face the most diverse electorate in history with a modern-day hybrid of George Wallace and Joseph McCarthy. I should be happy that Hillary now holds a healthy 5.8 point lead over Trump; that only 25 percent approve of his response to the Orlando attack; that 55 percent of Americans say they could never vote for him; that 70 percent of Americans, including 68 percent of independents, now hold an unfavorable view of Trump — a record for him, and every other person who’s ever been polled.
I should be happy about all of these numbers. But I’m not, because win or lose, Donald Trump’s candidacy is already doing real damage to our country. Every day, he gives voice and legitimacy to some of our darkest instincts and oldest prejudices — fear, and blame, and suspicion of the sinister “other.” Read this grotesque account of Trump’s Tuesday-night rally in North Carolina, described by the reporter as a “visceral and terrorizing nightmare,” or this study about the impact of the campaign on our schools, which found “an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color” and that “many students worry about being deported.”
Imagine what Latino children must think when they turn on the television and hear Trump say that a judge can’t do his job because of his Mexican heritage. Imagine what Muslim children must think when they hear him say that people who believe what they do are no longer welcome here. Imagine what little girls think when they hear that he called women “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs,” and “disgusting animals.” Imagine what children with disabilities think when they see the video of Trump mocking a reporter’s physical condition in front of a large crowd.
I have a lot of respect for the Republicans who’ve publicly refused to endorse Donald Trump — particularly the elected Republicans, like senators Ben Sasse and Lindsey Graham, and governors Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker. I’ve had plenty of disagreements with their policy positions in the past, and I expect to in the future. But they’ve decided at this crucial moment that there are things more important in life than winning an election. Or, as Senator Graham put it, “There’ll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary.”
I can’t say I feel the same way about the other 271 Republican governors, senators, and representatives who’ve refused to walk away from Trump. If you truly think he’d be a great president — or at least one who’s temperamentally fit for high office — then fine. I don’t understand you, but at least you’re not full of shit. What I understand even less is how someone like Paul Ryan can say that Trump’s attack on a federal judge is “racist,” and then support his bid to lead and represent America to the rest of the world. How can Marco Rubio say that Trump can’t be trusted with the nuclear codes, but in the very next breath announce that he’ll be voting to elect him commander-in-chief? How do Republicans keep making these tortured, laughably political comments with no hint of shame or realization that they are proving Trump’s entire point about Washington politicians?
The Ryans and Rubios of the world may think that they’ll skate by the Trump catastrophe unscathed, but even if that’s true, there will always be other Trumps in this party, whose only platform will be the wack-job conspiracies and primal rage peddled every day by Rush and Hannity and Breitbart and worse — a media-generated alternate reality for the Republican base.
There will always be other Trumps until Republicans decide to make defeating Trumpism a cause, even if that means short-term losses. If the party does not become more welcoming and inclusive, young people and other voters will tune it out. Republicans simply cannot afford to write off any demographic or community or region of this country.
That’s not my advice. That’s advice directly from the Republican Party’s own 2012 autopsy report, which is all about how they could find future electoral success.
I know, I’m a Democrat. But I’ll tell you that in 2015, when Democrats woke up with nightmares about 2016, we didn’t see the faces of Ted Cruz or Donald Trump. And the Republican strategists and consultants we fear most are now part of the seen-better-days #NeverTrump movement. If elected Republicans don’t join them, and instead just surrender to Trump en masse, they will be right back here in 2020. Someone has to fight this battle now.
This isn’t concern trolling. I’m confident that Democrats can continue to beat Republican candidates who appeal only to a shrinking Republican base. But I don’t want to see this Trump or other Trumps do more damage to this country, and for that to happen, America needs a strong, healthy Republican Party. We can do battle over the role of government and national security and all the rest, but we can at least agree on an America that looks less like Trump’s campaign, and more like the open, welcoming, pluralistic democracy that we’ve painstakingly built together, as one nation.
Rip the damn Band-Aid off.