‘It is so nice that the shackles have been taken off me and I can now fight for America the way I want to,” Donald Trump tweeted at the reasonable hour of 10 a.m. on Tuesday.
There were no visible shackles on Trump when he launched his several-news-cycles-long assaults on Judge Gonzalo Curiel in May, Khizr Khan and his family in July, and Alicia Machado in September.
No reasonable person thinks House speaker Paul Ryan or Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell advised him to make these headline-grabbing attacks. It’s hard to think of any Republican member of Congress who would (well, maybe one or two).
A quick glance at the polls shows that each of these attacks was followed by a downdraft in support for Trump. Recent polling suggests he has been in decline since the first debate, which was September 26, and quite possibly in free fall after the release of the Access Hollywood tape October 7.
None of this had to be. Trump’s success was the result of multiple factors. He shrewdly, if clumsily, perceived that many, maybe most, Republican voters were at odds with party leaders’ stands on trade and immigration.
He understood the vulnerabilities of the inevitable Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. (Some Never Trumpers lament that he didn’t run in the Democratic primary.) A Democrat whom two-thirds of voters consider dishonest and untrustworthy and who, unlike other Democrats, doesn’t score well on “cares about people like me” is, by historical standards, a suboptimal candidate.
Barack Obama won 51 percent of the vote in 2012. Clinton hasn’t reached that level in polling against Trump since August 2015.
Before his attacks on the admirable judge, the Gold Star parents, and the dodgy Miss Universe, polling had Trump just about even with Clinton. He had multiple plausible paths to the 270 votes needed for victory in the Electoral College. Now it’s not clear that he has any.
Perhaps that’s what has got him feeling the shackles are off and launching attacks on other Republicans. He tweeted Tuesday that Paul Ryan is “our very weak and ineffective leader,” that John McCain is “very foul mouthed” and that “disloyal R’s are far more difficult than Crooked Hillary.” That was a day after Ryan’s conference call advising Republicans to handle Trump any way they want, including with disavowal.
“Civil War in the Republican Party!” proclaimed the headlines. Asked whether there is any precedent for this, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight answered, “Not in my lifetime.”
That’s probably right. Silver was born in 1978 and presumably started seriously following politics in the 1990s. That’s when Bill Clinton busted the Republican lock on the presidency, Newt Gingrich busted the Democratic lock on Congress, and support for presidential and congressional candidates in the respective parties started converging — to the point that in 2012, only 26 congressional districts voted for the presidential nominee of one party and the congressional nominee of the other, the lowest number since 1920.
But in the 1970s and 1980s, plenty of voters split their tickets, and dozens of Senate and House candidates, especially Democrats but also some Republicans, built their careers and ran their campaigns on issue positions sharply distinct from those of their parties’ presidential nominees. Voters understood this. In 1972, voters in 191 districts voted for the presidential nominee of one party and the congressional nominee of the other. Almost half the districts Richard Nixon carried elected Democratic representatives. Voters can split tickets if they want to.
After the cascade following the Access Hollywood tape, some 87 Republican members of Congress and governors have renounced Trump, out of mixtures in varying proportions of conscience and calculation. But the process got started long before the tape or the conference call.
Members with a district comprising many Hispanics (Mike Coffman), many Washington insiders (Barbara Comstock), or many affluent college graduates (Bob Dold) have been refusing to support Trump for months — just as northeastern Republicans shunned Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Southern Democrats shunned George McGovern in 1972.
Unlike the case with the past four elections, there are perceptible differences between the Republican presidential nominee and most party officeholders. Republicans who want to differentiate themselves from Trump have plenty of material, on issues and on character.
A politician’s strength is his weakness. Donald Trump’s impulsiveness, an asset in primaries, is now a liability. His criticisms of other Republicans are unconvincing as an alibi for his likely defeat, and they divert attention from Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses, which could conceivably produce another result. He’d be wise to put the shackles on and keep them on.