The sorry saga of the Republican Party’s fitful embrace of Donald Trump can best be told by borrowing an old template originally shaped by a faraway Protestant pastor who wanted to tell a very different story in a very different era.
Sadly, the old template works all too well, adding a context of rarely spoken truth to a Trump story we all figured we knew. (We'll get to that Protestant pastor who created it later.)
Here’s our Tale of Trump, as shaped by that wise theologian:
First Trump villainized the Mexicans. (On day one, as he announced he was running for president, he called Mexicans who illegally enter the United States criminals and rapists.)
And the GOP’s famous leaders went along. Because the GOP leaders weren’t Mexicans and neither were their prime backers or big-money givers. Besides, fed-up voters of all persuasions were cheering Trump’s anti-Mexican tough talk.
Then Trump ridiculed the physically disabled. He sneeringly mocked the severe disability of a journalist who displeased him.
And the GOP’s famous leaders let it go. Because Trump’s soulless mockery still didn’t reach into their homes.
Then Trump began heaping praise upon Russia’s Vladimir Putin – despite Russia’s military adventurism in Ukraine and propping up of Syria’s dictator. And Trump railed against Muslim Americans – even the Gold Star Muslim American parents whose son gave his life to protect fellow soldiers.
And the GOP’s luminaries mostly looked the other way. Because Trump was winning their Republican presidential primaries.
Then Trump repeatedly made news for insulting women he considered overweight or not pretty enough. He even suggested Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly might have been bleeding from her wherever.
And GOP leaders got away with saying little and trying to just look the other way. Because, after all, Republican voters seemed entertained by Trump’s alternating fits of rage and outrage.
If any of that seems familiar, it is because it is a modernization of a template crafted more than 70 years ago, in Germany, by the Rev. Martin Niemoller, who was an outspoken opponent of Nazism. Parallels that reach back into that era are almost always unfair and politically wrong – and we aren’t drawing any parallel to that evil era. But Niemoller’s poetic analysis left us a bracing reminder of the human condition: we tend to look the other way, even when we know something is wrong – as long as we can rationalize that it really isn’t about us.
So he famously wrote: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – / Because I was not a Socialist. … Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – / Because I was not a Jew. / Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”
But last week, we fortunately broke through the shackles of Pastor Niemoller’s template. We liberated ourselves from humanity’s worst instincts, perhaps, thanks to a politically stunning event – the leak of the Video Heard ‘Round the World.
By now, all the planet’s cognoscenti have heard the best and worst bits of the “Access Hollywood” outtakes from 2005: Trump is stupidly bragging (while wearing a live microphone!) that he gets away with all sorts of acts against women because he is “a star.” He said he could do anything – grab them by the privates and so on.
Here in the USA, scores of prominent Republicans began whipping out press releases explaining they had mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, granddaughters – and that they could no longer justify voting for Trump to the females in their lives. GOP superstars were saying they won’t vote for Trump. House Speaker Paul Ryan stopped short of that but told his colleagues he won’t defend Trump any more – he'll just work to elect a Republican Congress.
Now this: An article in the Christianity Today magazine, founded by the Rev. Billy Graham, reported this week that “there has been little public movement among his leading evangelical supporters and detractors.” It went on to report: “One of the most notable reactions to Trump’s lewd comments came from Harvest Bible Chapel pastor James MacDonald, a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory council. … Over the weekend, MacDonald denounced Trump’s ‘misogynistic trash that reveals a man to be lecherous and worthless,' according to email excerpts published with MacDonald’s permission by CT (Christianity Today) blogger Ed Stetzer.
“'I cannot and will not offer help to a man who believes this kind of talk a minor error,' wrote MacDonald. He later noted, ‘No more defending Mr. Trump as simply foolish or loose lipped.’”
Trump’s obscene conduct has finally penetrated the homes and lives of the Republican leaders in ways that even the worst and most soulless of his past words and deeds apparently did not.
The writer is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.