Over the weekend, the political version of civil disobedience broke out in the Republican Party. The emergence of Donald Trump as the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee was supposed to start uniting the party behind him, but has instead led to an eruption of discord and dissent. Like most everything else associated with Trump, it was unprecedented.
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Paul Ryan, speaker of House of Representatives, started the fire. The 46-year-old congressman from Wisconsin, who rejected previous calls to challenge Trump for the presidency, said he was “not ready” to support his candidacy. The surprise announcement shocked Republicans: Trump supporters portrayed Ryan as a backstabbing Benedict Arnold while Ryan fans depicted him in terms worthy of Sir Thomas More, the “Man for All Seasons” who stayed true to his Catholic conscience, defied King Henry VIII and was sent to the gallows. Trump and Ryan are scheduled to meet on Thursday but according to a report in Saturday’s New York Times, at least, the breach between the two is unfixable.
The irony, with its potentially volatile ramifications, is that by virtue of being the senior Republican in the House, Ryan will serve as chairman of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in mid-July. If the two haven’t worked out their differences by then, this could spark a flurry of mutual suspicions and accusations - though it does guarantee, at least, that Ryan will be physically present. The same cannot be said for many of the GOP aristocracy, including the party’s two former presidents, Bush 41 and Bush 43, as well as its last two presidential contenders, John McCain and Mitt Romney, who have all served notice of their planned absence. Bob Dole, the 1996 GOP candidate who will be 93-years-old in July, will attend.
The intensity of the uprising against Trump has resuscitated, for a few days at least, the “nuclear option” favored by some of his opponents of a third candidate who will compete against both Trump and Hillary Clinton. Although there is very little time left to prepare such a run, some of Trump’s critics were engaged over the weekend in a furious last-ditch effort to get it off the ground. One of them was Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, who sounded out Mitt Romney. Kristol is the chairman of the right wing Emergency Committee for Israel, a group linked to Sheldon Adelson, who was perhaps the most prominent of those who have come out in public support for Trump’s candidacy in recent days.
The opposition of Romney, Ryan and others is couched in terms of ideology and principle: Trump isn’t a true conservative, they claim, and his statements on Hispanics, Muslims and others are loathsome. Political analysts add that Ryan is displaying leadership qualities by extending a protective umbrella for those GOP congressional candidates who are competing in districts in which support for Trump will only harm them. But pouring fuel on the already smoldering flames is a sense of personal insult, which many of Trump’s detractors are unwilling to forgive.
The Bush dynasty can’t forget that Trump called George W. Bush a liar on Iraq and that he not only beat Jeb Bush in the presidential campaign but also humiliated him along the way; in a Facebook post on Friday, Jeb wrote that Trump lacks the necessary character and qualities to be president. Former candidate Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s fiercest critics, said he would never be able to pardon the New York billionaire for disparaging John McCain’s courage as a pilot taken prisoner in the Vietnam War. Sources close to Ryan said the clincher for him was Trump’s bizarre attack on Ted Cruz’s father, on the basis of a blurry picture in the National Enquirer purporting to show him in the company of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
The problem is that contempt, ridicule and scorn are a central element of Trump’s rhetoric and a main ingredient in his success. They have made him into a sought-after interviewee and a campaign rally megastar with unlimited television coverage. And they have also helped to diminish his GOP opponents, render them pitiful rather than powerful and turn Republican voters against them. After “Little Marco” Rubio, “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, and “Low Energy” Jeb Bush, Trump is now instilling the “crooked Hillary” combo to strike at his presumptive Democratic rival. Clinton’s lame rejoinders - first “dangerous Donald” and now “presumptuous nominee” - only prove that he is the unrivaled grandmaster of insults and slights. And that President Barack Obama may have been mistaken in his White House press conference on Friday, when he said that the presidential campaign is not a reality show.
It’s not even clear that Trump can be weaned off his diatribes, even if he wanted to; he keeps dispatching his poisonous barbs even when they seem both unnecessary and potentially harmful. He could afford to ignore Graham, who doesn’t threaten him, but he insisted on responding to him in a tweet saying that the U.S. senator was “an embarrassment to the people of South Carolina” and “beyond rehabilitation.” He ridiculed Morning Joe’s Joe Scarborough, a former GOP legislator who has been criticized for being too supportive of Trump, after he tweeted that Trump would need to persuade him to give him his vote. And he refuses to backtrack from his grotesque volley against Cruz’s father, because great men don’t make mistakes, perhaps.
GOP chairman Reince Priebus tried to defend Trump by saying, “He’s trying,” provoking universal laughter. The appropriate fable would seem to be the one about the scorpion who stings the frog that is carrying him across the river, despite the fact that it causes both to drown, “because it’s in my nature” as the scorpion explains. The lesson is that bad traits never disappear and will inevitably lead to a bad ending.
But there’s an earlier version of the tale that appears in the Babylonian Talmud in the Nedarim Tractate. In that tale the scorpion doesn’t sting the frog but rather the man who is on the other bank of the river. The Talmudic lesson is that nothing will stand in the way of God’s will or in the execution of his divine punishment; in Trump’s case, however, God’s will hasn’t manifested itself yet, and it’s not clear who is going to get punished in the end.