This is the saddest week for American democracy since Richard Nixon left the White House in disgrace in August 1974. But this time around, no one should be crowing, “The system worked.”
The GOP race ended Tuesday night when Reince Priebus, the see-no-evil chairman of Republican Party, tweeted that Donald Trump was now the “presumptive nominee.” At least, Nixon had to sign a formal resignation letter rather than do everything with @signs and #hashtags.
The Republicans couldn’t even muster the honor and the dignity to fight until the party convention in Cleveland. Instead, they handed over their party to a potty-mouthed, pathological liar whose ignorance is only exceeded by his arrogance. The GOP’s idea of a suitable commander-in-chief is a former reality-show host who supports committing war crimes by targeting the children and families of terrorists.
Political parties sometimes court devastating defeat because they become smitten with cause-driven candidates peddling political purity. There were reasons of principle for the 1972 Democrats to go down with antiwar liberal George McGovern and for the Republicans to vanish beneath the waves with conscience-of-a-conservative Barry Goldwater in 1964.
But Trump stands for no cause beyond his own ego. His hatred of free trade and his America First isolationism repudiate core beliefs that the Republicans have held for more than half a century. Trump’s policy ideas are so shallow that the 2016 Republican Platform could be printed on a postcard.
Even so, the Republicans have hoisted the white flag more than 10 weeks before the Cleveland convention and before Trump actually corralled a 1,237-delegate majority.
[Related: The War on Trump Is Over ]
Such are the demands of party unity. Rallying around Trump is the political version of the line from the Vietnam War: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”
In a nation of 323 million, Hillary Clinton is now the only person standing between Donald Trump and nuclear weapons. Just thinking about Trump with the nuclear codes brings to mind the anti-Goldwater “Daisy” television ad that ended with a thermonuclear explosion.
With the stakes this high, there are many reasons to wish that Hillary were a better candidate. It wasn’t the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that convinced Clinton to take $675,000 from Goldman Sachs for paid speeches. It wasn’t a conservative hit man who arranged for her to install a home-brew email server as secretary of state.
But now the electoral choice in 2016 has become stark: Hillary or the abyss?
It is tragic that decades of anti-Clinton venom have convinced many rational Republicans that the bilious billionaire is a better choice for president than a woman who spent eight years in the Senate and four years in the Cabinet.
In truth, Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy views are to the right of the Democratic mainstream — and not that far in spirit from George H.W. Bush and Colin Powell. How can smart Republicans argue that this cautious, sane woman would be a more dangerous president than, gulp, Donald Trump?
Every time Trump denounces his opponent as “Crooked Hillary,” I recall the 1991 Louisiana governor’s race between KKK-veteran David Duke and the colorful but often-indicted, Edwin Edwards. Anti-Duke activists distributed bumper stickers that read: “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.”
What is worrisome is how the click-happy news media will handle the general election campaign.
The coverage may well be dominated by a false equivalence between Clinton and Trump. Will the candidates be considered equally qualified for office simply because they were both nominated by major parties? Every time Hillary fudges the truth, will it be likened to a major Trump lie? And will Trump’s off-the-cuff comments be regarded as the counterpart to Clinton’s detailed policy papers?
Nervous Republicans and bored journalists will have a shared interest in creating a story line about how the real-estate baron has grown in stature as a candidate. A week without crude insults and Trump will seem like a modern-day statesman. A few cordial meetings with GOP leaders and Trump will be hailed for embracing conservative principles.
With Hillary Clinton, the media can forget nothing. And with Donald Trump, the press pack can remember nothing. Trump’s hate mongering against Muslims and Mexicans will soon be portrayed as belonging to another era — that long-ago time when 16 other Republican presidential candidates walked the earth.
Many reporters (myself included) operated for months under the delusion that the Republicans could never nominate a candidate who violated every norm of both politics and civilized conduct. Having been wrong before, journalists are apt to portray Trump as a stronger candidate than the polls and the electoral map might suggest.
[Related: Polls Show Clinton With Large Lead Over Trump ]
Up to now, most voters have only heard Donald Trump’s version of his life story. More money was squandered on the 2014 North Carolina Senate race than was spent on anti-Trump ads in the GOP primaries. While Clinton’s well-known weaknesses are already reflected in her polling numbers, Trump will have to endure being defined by maybe $1 billion worth of Democratic attack ads.
Partisans always over-hype elections. Looking back, it is hard to argue that the world was at stake when Mitt Romney challenged Barack Obama four years ago.
But this election — more than any contest in my lifetime — is different.
Never before has a political party nominated anyone as inexperienced, hateful and intemperate as Donald Trump. And the thought of Trump with nuclear weapons leaves me more frightened than at any time since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.