Republican leaders have a decision to make: Will they take personal responsibility for their historic errors? Or just sigh with relief if/when their candidate loses?
Even before Friday's explosive revelations, a mind-blowing number of party grandees had already signaled or baldly stated that Donald Trump's candidacy is both a farce and a calamity. Mitt Romney said Trump "has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president." Members of Congress and former Cabinet officials slammed Trump's racist incitement and apparent lack of moral compass. Sen. Lindsey Graham has been particularly scathing, going so far as to call Trump's comments about a Mexican-American federal judge "the most un-American thing from a politician since Joe McCarthy." Hank Paulson, George W. Bush's treasury secretary, wrote that Republicans have a civic duty to vote for Hillary Clinton. Former presidential candidate Jeb Bush said that not voting at all "would be a pretty powerful political statement." And since Friday, there's been a veritable cavalcade of Republicans eager to publicly perform their horror over Trump's lewd, crude, sexual assault-y language and behavior, from Speaker Paul Ryan to former GOP nominee John McCain.
Which is all well and good, and if it helps prevent a Trump presidency, welcome. But it is a very long way from enough.
For all that Trump is an embarrassment and a clear and present danger — indeed, for all that he has been revealed to be not just the misogynist we already knew him to be but an admitted predator as well — he isn't the problem.
Donald Trump is instead a symptom — and not of fiscal conservatism or small-government ideology. His place at the top of the GOP ticket is a direct consequence of a long and well-documented history of racist, sexist demagoguery steeped in dehumanization and violent rhetoric that has always encompassed people of color, the LGBTQ community, and, of course, women.
Heretofore, the panoply of white supremacists and misogynists now clinging to Trump's robes were sustained by winks and nods, dog whistles and the Tea Party, as they swapped theories about President Obama's birthplace and the venomous nature of women who say "no."
Politicians themselves have long carefully coded their language. Paul Ryan has declined to say outright that criminal consequences should be attached to abortion, making do with "if it's illegal, it's illegal"; Trump's running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, issued an executive order banning Syrian refugees from his state; in 2012, the Iowa GOP officially adopted a birther-adjacent platform; that same year, Romney said (behind carefully closed doors) that "there are 47 percent who are with [Obama] … who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing … [M]y job is is not to worry about those people."
And so when Trump said "there should be some form of punishment" for abortion, called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," and tweeted his concern that the 2013 federal budget included "no cuts to welfare, no cuts to food stamps & NOT A SINGLE CUT TO OBAMACARE" — all while leading the birther pack — he was not doing so in a vacuum. He was drawing on a decades-deep cesspool of hate and misinformation, not so much lifting the veil as kicking down the door. In the words of erstwhile Trump delegate and leading white nationalist William Johnson, Trump "is allowing us to talk about things we've not been able to talk about."
It's not enough for Republican leaders to curl their lip and shake Trump off, not enough to call on voters not to vote (really, Jeb Bush?) or vote for Clinton. The forces of chaos and odium flocking to Trump's cause go far beyond, and are more dangerous than, a single lying sociopath. Trump wouldn't have gotten this far if those forces didn't already exist and feel validated; securing his defeat will not be enough to undo the damage.
Trump supporters have already heard loud and clear that Clinton cannot win without stealing the election (and Trump has hinted he might not concede if he loses), raising the real risk of violence in November. Regardless, we'll be paying for what the GOP has wrought well beyond this election cycle, starting with what's sure to be a birther-like backlash against Clinton specifically, and non-submissive women in general, and threatening anyone who has or will take a stand against Trumpism and its acolytes.
Those who have had a hand in creating the swamp in which Trump bathes have a choice: They can take responsibility, acknowledge the role they've played, and use their positions to denounce the winks, the nods, the lies, and the incitement. They can recognize the dignity of all humans, whether white, black, immigrant, or (gasp) female. I imagine that any who do so will continue to disagree with me on a laundry list of policy proposals — but the sanctity of human dignity shouldn't be a wedge issue.
Or, perhaps, those responsible for the very campaign they and their fellow travelers now denounce will wake up on Nov. 9 and, regardless of the outcome, carry on with reckless abandon, taking neither personal responsibility nor collective action to stanch the wound, choosing not just party over country, but career over all.