Opinion: Trump’s train is running off the tracks

 Opinion: Trump’s train is running off the tracks

The unlikely canary in the coal mine came in the form of Arizona Sen. Martha McSally — typically a Trump sycophant — who avoided answering several direct questions on whether she was proud of her support for the President during her debate against Democratic challenger Mark Kelly. Instead, she robotically repeated that she was “proud to be fighting for Arizona.”
In Arizona, Trump has the added burden of repeatedly insulting the state’s favorite son, John McCain, whose wife Cindy has endorsed Joe Biden. Trump’s persistent disrespect of McCain provoked McSally to slap the President more directly: “It pisses me off when he does it.”
It’s not that McSally had a change of heart or mind. It’s that she’s losing by 11 points, according to a recent New York Times/Siena poll, to Kelly, an astronaut and husband of former Arizona congresswoman and gun-reform advocate Gabby Giffords.
It’s not just an Arizona problem. In Texas, polls show a surprisingly tight race between Trump and Biden. Perhaps not coincidentally, Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn — running for a fourth term against combat veteran M.J. Hegar — notably dared to criticize Trump last week, saying that the President “let his guard down” and stirred “confusion” with his chaotic response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think the biggest mistake people make in public life is not telling the truth,” he said, “particularly in something with as much public interest as here because you know the real story is going to come out.”

Trump's grotesque coronavirus theater
In Iowa — a state that voted for Trump by a margin of almost 10 points in 2016Republican Sen. Joni Ernst is down 5% to her Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield.
In Colorado, Republican Sen. Cory Gardner has been trailing former Gov. John Hickenlooper for the duration of the race. In Maine, self-styled moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins — who refused to even vote for witnesses during the Trump impeachment trial — finds herself staring at the end of a quarter-century career.

Legendary Republican campaign strategist Ed Rollins, who is the chair of the pro-Donald Trump Great America PAC, told me “I’m afraid the race is over.” Rollins said that he “would definitely recommend that candidates make the case for their own reelection, and when asked about President Trump they should say ‘I support him when it’s in the interest of my state, North Carolina, Arizona — and oppose him when it’s not in the interest of our state. My job to support the people of our state.'”

The respected Cook Political Report rated Republican-held Senate seats as toss-ups in typically red states like South Carolina, Georgia and Montana — which Trump won by a cumulative average of 13 points four years ago.
The idea that incumbent Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham could be in a neck-and-neck race in South Carolina against Jamie Harrison would have seemed absurd in any other cycle — but that’s where we are. Lindsey Graham’s embrace of Trump after Trump’s attacks on his good friend John McCain have not reflected well on his character.
The smell of desperation has only increased over the past week, after Trump’s disastrous performance at the first presidential debate that widened the already cavernous gender gap and pushed Biden to a 21-point edge among senior citizens in the latest CNN poll. In the wake of the White House Covid-outbreak and Trump’s subsequent “‘roid rage” tweets, single-handedly scuttling Covid-relief bills, calls to arrest political opponents and even attacking loyal-to-a-fault cabinet members Attorney General Bill Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made some wonder if Trump would take everyone down with him.
America is hurtling toward a crossroads on November 3. What comes next?

There’s reason to worry. The Republican Party has not prospered under Trump nearly as much as Trump has prospered — in fame and influence — from his takeover of the GOP. He’s been so focused on projecting strength to the base that it’s obscured the fact that he’s really weak with the general electorate.

In the 2018 midterms, Republicans got crushed not just by a “blue wave” but a “blue tsunami” as my CNN colleague Harry Enten called it — resulting in Democrats gaining 40 House seats, their largest pick-up since the post-Watergate surge of 1974 — and that’s despite a massive degree of gerrymandering designed to stop Democrats from getting their fair share of congressional seats, commensurate to the popular vote.

Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both faced midterm election repudiations, but they both easily won reelection. That does not seem to be the scenario Donald Trump is heading into this fall.

Despite this destructive dynamic, Republicans in Congress have been caught in a Catch-22. While Trump is hugely popular with the base, he has been a historically unpopular president overall — the only president in the history of the Gallup Poll to never be above 50% in his approval rating, despite low unemployment before the coronavirus crisis. But because of polarization, power in the party has been driven to the margins, with most members of Congress more afraid of losing a partisan primary than a general election. As a result, they live in fear of a presidential tweet, offending a conservative donor or being attacked by a right-wing website.
All this breeds anemic apparatchiks. Whether it is Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power or refusal to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin, a reluctance to clearly condemn white supremacists or allegations that he insulted the sacrifice of US troops (Trump has denied the claims), there has seemed to be no red line that Trump could cross that would cause Republican elected officials to speak out. This even as more than 200 former GOP elected, national security and George W. Bush administration alumnae leaders have crossed party lines to endorse Joe Biden, including former members of the Trump administration itself.

But what happens when politicians’ self-interest starts to override Trump’s blustering excesses? And what’s stopping more from stepping off the Trump train before it runs off the tracks?

Many saw Trump pull off an impossible win last time around — despite all the polls — and some believe that it’s destined to happen again, data be damned. Others are afraid that speaking out will destroy any hope of higher office in some future Republican Party, where Trumpists will retain influence. Still others just don’t want to deal with the grief from hyperpartisan trolls on social media or salve their bruised conscience with negative partisanship, telling themselves that Bernie Sanders, not Joe Biden, is the de facto nominee of the Democratic Party.

Finally, for others, it’s just too late to have a conversion experience and credibly campaign as an independent-minded Republican. They worry they could lose the base while failing to gain the center.

A week is a long time in politics, especially when Donald Trump is throwing bombs. Anything can happen — it is 2020, after all. But as he threatens democratic norms and insists on his alternate reality, more Republicans may — at least in cold moments of private panic — awaken from their hyperpartisan stupor to realize that loyalty is always a one-way street with Trump.

Facing defeat, despite all the self-debasement, they might realize that their first impressions of Trump were right, before they rationalized it all away for proximity to power at the expense of their principles. As Lindsey Graham tweeted in 2016: “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed … and we will deserve it.”

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