It's contagious.

Photographer: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

Trump Offers Republicans the Kiss of Death

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Donald Trump's demagogic performance in the days after the Orlando mass shooting has prompted more awkward silence and equivocations from Republicans on Capitol Hill.

The Washington Post:

But most Republicans on Capitol Hill tried to distance themselves from Trump’s comments following the terrorist attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando that killed at least 49 people. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) refused to respond to questions about Trump at his weekly news conference.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) denounced Trump for trying to rally support for his anti-Muslim policies, while others castigated Trump for the accusations he has lobbed at Obama.

McConnell and many, though far from all, of his co-partisans deserve every bit of their discomfort, of course. Having shamefully partnered with birthers, bigots and cranks -- Trump included -- in an effort to chase Barack Obama from the White House, they now find themselves unable to call off the increasingly wild dogs.

Ryan never tainted himself by playing cute with birthers and the like. But he badly miscalculated with Trump. Expressing qualms, Ryan made a show of withholding support from Trump. When he at last agreed to support his party's presumptive nominee, it was widely understood that Ryan expected better behavior in turn.

Instead, Trump has gotten worse. If Ryan had qualms before, he can only be horrified now as Trump uses his enhanced public platform -- and the credibility of the Republican brand -- to continue to wallow in conspiracy theory, delusion and scapegoating.

Republican leaders seem to have concluded that they are caught between a rock and a hard place. This is a misperception. On one side is indeed a rock -- the political difficulty of renouncing the party's all-but-certain presidential nominee while simultaneously trying to bolster its other candidates. But the other side is not a mere "hard place"; it's a moral and political calamity. It could jeopardize the party for years.

It would be better to distance themselves from Trump and treat him as a freak accident (even if he is not). Because his campaign is only going to get uglier.

As Trump continues down his reckless path -- there is no Trump general-election pivot toward responsible politics or policy -- he is highly likely to lose support. The RealClearPolitics polling average already shows the beginning of such a trend, though it may largely reflect Hillary Clinton's consolidation of support as her primary contest ends.

Still, a CBS poll found respondents had a dismal view of Trump's reaction to the Orlando shooting; only 25 percent approved of his response while 51 percent disapproved. That's not the result of a typical partisan breakdown in which Republicans support the Republican candidate and Democrats don't. Only 50 percent of Republicans approved of Trump's response.

Trump spoke last night in Greensboro, North Carolina. According to one report, some members of the audience were as offensive as their candidate, yelling obscenities at the mention of Hillary Clinton's name, shoving and punching and chanting, "Build that wall!"

There is real dissatisfaction in the U.S., but the majority of American voters do not appear poised to join a mob. Large numbers do not share the anxieties animating Trump's most fervent supporters.

In the likely event that resistance to Trump solidifies, his poll numbers, which he deems almost sacred, will no longer prop up his besieged ego. To soothe his hurt, he will inevitably summon more of what wins him the mob's cheers -- demagogy.

Republicans are experiencing karma on a scale that politics only rarely affords. With Ryan, McConnell and their party tethered to Trump's destructive course, he will drag them down with him, and the association will linger long past 2016. Denying him the nomination may be impossible, perhaps even pointless, given that Trump's supporters would not accept a substitute.

Yet self-respecting politicians will be forced to ditch Trump sooner or later. There will be no way to reach an acceptable compromise with the political catastrophe that he both embodies and advances. There's more dignity, and less pain, to be had in walking away -- now.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net