If you’re a Republican of even the faintest stripe and haven’t signed an open letter urging somebody somewhere to do something about Donald Trump, time to get on the bus. So many are rushing forward that the question isn’t so much whether you’ve signed a letter, but which letter you’ve signed. As you might imagine, a pecking order is emerging.
You, whoever you are, are already too late to be allowed to sign the most prestigious of these letters, although, to be frank, you wouldn’t have been asked to sign it anyway. This is the letter from former national security officials, and it describes Trump as a dangerously erratic dingbat—or words to that effect. The number of Trump traducers on this list was set arbitrarily at fifty, apparently because an odd number would have lessened the impact. Suppose the headline had read: “73 former Republican officials denounce Trump.” The reader might conclude that 73 were all they could scrape together. As it is, we are free to imagine hundreds if not thousands of lesser officials who also consider Trump a danger to the Republic but were turned away at the gate for lacking the necessary political chops.
It’s dog-eat-dog in the Trump-bashing business, and this is the big dog table.
Which brings us to a second open letter, which you can’t sign either. That’s the one from “Republican operatives” to the RNC suggesting that the Party defund the Trump campaign. You’d think that this sort of internal Party debate would be conducted, you know, internally. Not so. These functionaries want the world to know that Donald Trump is—in the immortal words of Donald Trump—a loser. From the letter it seems that Trump’s sociopathic narcissism doesn’t bother them. They aren’t disturbed by the bone-deep ignorance, the faithlessness, the mendacity, the hypocrisy, the lack of compassion, the priapism, the Putin envy, the reliance on fear, the divisiveness, the bullying, the racism, or the greed. It’s the inept campaigning that makes their blood boil. Time to run up the white flag, lower the boats, and, most importantly, stop payment on the checks. You may very well agree with this idea (why send good money after bad?), but if you do, you’ll have to come up with an open letter of your own. On the other hand, if you are really a Republican operative and were somehow forgotten in the rush to the internet, you might heave a sigh of relief and stay undercover until the current unpleasantness ends.
But do not despair all ye who wish to denounce Trump in public without actually having to mix with the public, which seems to be in an ugly mood at the moment. There is another open letter, in substance much like the first two, but open to B-list former officials like me, A-list academics like Richard Betts and Robert Jervis, and even Democrats. This one describes Trump (again I paraphrase) as an irresponsible dunce who couldn’t be trusted with a broken slingshot let alone the nuclear codes. The problem is that the signers are of insufficient rank or (in the case of the eminent academics) so far outside the candidate’s limited experience of the world that he hasn’t bothered to denounce them back. This from a man who denounces babies who disturb his equanimity. It’s the final indignity. It doesn’t detract from the righteousness of the initiative, but removes most of the fun. Still, at last report you could still add your name, provided you have achieved some small measure of reputation or at least notoriety in the hurly-burly of politics.
If you’re prestigious enough, of course, you can denounce Trump on your own. Strangely, this is the course chosen by eminent Trump supporters and opponents alike, who use much the same language (he’s an inexperienced demagogue with poor impulse control) but draw different conclusions. Among the Trump opponents, one might single out Brent Scowcroft and Rich Armitage, who don’t require the validation of groups and haven’t pulled any punches, Trump-wise. Using essentially the same data set, on the other hand, an alarmingly porcine Newt Gingrich, continuing his now twenty-year spiral into irrelevance, has concluded Trump is just the man for the Oval Office. Then there are Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, who once damned Trump with the faintest of praise, but have since lapsed into determined silence, which, in a way, is more damning still. They support Trump nonetheless on the grounds that some semblance of a Republican Party might be recovered from the wreckage, a motive they hardly bother to disguise. Silence reigns on other fronts as well. Where, for example, is Colin Powell? His spokesman (That’s pretty cool: He has a spokesman! But what exactly does this spokesman do during those long months when Powell has nothing to say?) reports that Powell is not ready to endorse either candidate. And Bob Gates, who lacks a spokesman, is tap-dancing on the edge of the abyss in the company of what might be called “decent-interval Republicans,” who pray that Trump will, for God’s sake, just act sane for a few weeks so they can endorse—or at least fail to condemn—him without taking too much shine off their reputations. Trump, who has no intention of acting sane, has preemptively denounced Gates.
And last but not least are the Bushes, sulking in their dynastic tent and wondering what to do with Jeb’s boy in Florida who, demonstrating the proclivity of the younger generations of Bushes and protégés to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, has urged Republicans to get behind Trump.
It is said that irony is the humor of losers, which makes it the perfect tool for describing this election. We’re all losers this time around. So we have to chuckle at the great irony that none of these letters or statements or even silences will have the slightest impact on the outcome of the election. Who will read them except the signatories, and how many even of them? Bob Zoellick (letter #1) won’t read letter #3. And signers of #3 like me, scanning only signatures, will think themselves accursed and count their manhoods cheap when any speaks who signed letter #1. So what’s the point? It’s this. Perhaps two or three generations hence, when some Harrison as yet undreamt of discovers a yellowed photograph and crumbling papers tucked inside a lead-line box and sees my name among the dissenters, he or she (or, in the worst case, it) will have a brief sense of satisfaction knowing that Great-Grandpa Harrison did at least do something to ward off the Great Darkness, and therefore may not have been as dumb as he looked.