What the Hell Happened to My Republican Party?

The party of principled conservatism, of promoting freedom at home and abroad, has become a party of conspiracy-mongering, authoritarianism, and white power.

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 12: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the University of South Florida Sun Dome on February 12, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. The process to select the next Democratic and Republican Presidential candidate continues. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 12: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the University of South Florida Sun Dome on February 12, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. The process to select the next Democratic and Republican Presidential candidate continues. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

As a confirmed #NeverTrump conservative from day one, I should be ecstatic at the way Donald Trump’s campaign has cratered since the Oct. 7 revelation of an audiotape in which he boasted of groping women. Numerous women have now come forward to testify that this was not, as the Republican nominee claimed in the second presidential debate, an empty boast. The Real Clear Politics average has Hillary Clinton seven points ahead nationally in a two-way race; a landslide is becoming increasingly likely.

And yet, although I’m relieved that Trump is unlikely to be our next president, I remain profoundly disturbed and depressed that so many of my fellow Republicans continue to back him despite the growing evidence of his degeneracy and lunacy. Their position in the campaign’s waning days — sitting on the Trump Train as it hurtles toward the precipice — bodes ill for the future of the Republican Party.

Sensing his impending downfall, Trump has been ranting that the election is rigged against him, hinting that his opponent is high on drugs, and demanding that she be locked up. Even more disturbing is his claim that Clinton is engaged in a conspiracy with a shadowy cabal of “international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends, and her donors” — language that echoes centuries of anti-Semitic slurs.

Trump has also been issuing empty threats to sue the New York Times and vainly trying to rebut the sexual assault charges against him — for instance, by putting forward a notorious British fabulist and self-proclaimed pimp to assert that he was on the very same flight, in the very same first-class cabin, nearly 40 years ago when Trump was alleged to have groped a female passenger and that absolutely nothing untoward happened.

The more Trump talks, the more demented he sounds. At the rate he is going, he will end the campaign in a psychiatric ward — or on his own TV channel, which is pretty much the same thing.

And yet all of his unhinged harangues have barely dented Trump’s support among his slavishly loyal base. A recent Fox News poll showed Clinton ahead of Trump by 7 percent overall, but Trump is still getting 80 percent of the Republican vote — only 10 points lower than John McCain, a war hero, received in 2008. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found 72 percent approve of his threats to imprison Clinton — a violation of the most basic norms of democracy. A survey by Public Policy Polling observed that among Trump supporters in Florida, 40 percent say Clinton is literally a demon — a claim advanced by the crackpot talk-radio host Alex Jones, who says the Democratic nominee “stinks” of sulfur.

These surveys suggest that most of the GOP base is so disfigured by pathological, unreasoning hatred of Clinton — a flawed candidate, to be sure, but also a centrist Democrat with ample qualifications for the presidency — that they will embrace any alternative, no matter how vile.

Most Republican leaders know better than their followers how unqualified Trump is for the highest office, yet precious few are willing to act on their inner conviction. Sens. John Thune and Deb Fischer finally called on Trump to drop out after the release of the Access Hollywood audiotape — but then, after he thrilled the base with his out-of-control performance in the second debate, they announced that they will still vote for him. Huh? Their stance is as incoherent as that of Sen. Marco Rubio, who said Trump could not be trusted with the nuclear arsenal and then, without retracting that grave (and accurate) accusation, endorsed Trump anyway. So now Rubio thinks that the nuclear codes should be given to a man who cannot be trusted with them?

Rubio is part of the vast majority of Republican officeholders who have refused to abandon Trump even as disturbing details of his behavior toward women have come to light, on top of his already well-known racism and xenophobia and his ignorance, avarice, and dishonesty. Those still endorsing Trump include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, though the latter has tried to have it both ways by saying he would not campaign for Trump. Long known as the champion of principled conservatism, Ryan looks increasingly opportunistic.

Far more repulsive has been the behavior of Trump’s most devoted surrogates, who are willing to say or do anything, no matter how meretricious, to advance their master’s ambitions. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. Jeff Sessions, Gov. Chris Christie, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, and of course Gov. Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, have been enthusiastically parroting the campaign’s risible claims that Trump is a “genius” for not paying taxes, that his boasts about grabbing women’s genitalia are just “locker room talk,” that all of the sexual assaults detailed by numerous accusers “couldn’t possibly have happened,” that WikiLeaks (a front for Russian intelligence run by an accused rapist) is a wonderful source of information, and that the election is being “rigged” by some mysterious, all-powerful force. Gov. Paul LePage of Maine went even further when he said the United States needs a President Trump to show “authoritarian power.” (He subsequently claimed he misspoke — he meant “authoritative,” which doesn’t make much sense.)

Precious few Republicans will emerge from this past year with a shred of integrity intact. The honor roll of #NeverTrump politicos includes Mitt Romney, the Bushes, Sens. Jeff Flake, Ben Sasse, and Lindsay Graham, as well as Govs. John Kasich, Larry Hogan, and Charlie Baker, among just a few others. A few more Republicans who had previously endorsed Trump have very belatedly turned against him, including Sens. Mark Kirk, John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, Rob Portman, and Cory Gardner.

That’s it. That’s the small remnant upon which the Republican Party will have to be rebuilt if it is not to become Trump’s party in perpetuity — and, Kasich aside, there is no one in the bunch who has been spoken of as a likely presidential contender. Almost all of the politicos who are rumored to be eyeing 2020 — a group that includes Sen. Tom Cotton, Sen. Ted Cruz, Gov. Scott Walker, Ryan, and Rubio — have been tainted by their embrace of the least qualified and most dangerous presidential candidate in U.S. history.

As someone who has been laboring in my own small way to advance conservative principles since the 1980s (I have written for all of the major conservative publications and served as a foreign-policy advisor to the McCain, Romney, and Rubio campaigns), I am shellshocked to find that so many people who were supposedly on “my” side are actually on Trump’s side — or are simply unprincipled power-seekers who will be on the side of anyone who promises to deliver votes for them.

Am I still a Republican? I’m not sure, because I don’t know what the Republican Party stands for anymore. Is it still the party of principled conservatism, promoting freedom at home and abroad, or has it permanently become the party of conspiracy-mongering, authoritarianism, and white power? I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that question.

Photo credit:  JOE RAEDLE/Getty Images

Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His forthcoming book is “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.” Twitter: @MaxBoot