"Who would even think such a thing, much less decide that it was a good idea to say it out loud in front of millions of viewers?" As I followed coverage of the Republican National Convention, I asked myself that question over and over again. As the doom-and-gloom oratory escalated, and the vilification of opponents spun out of control, it was a week of wonderment of the worst sort. Not surprising in its content, I suppose, but shocking in its intensity.
One of the most amazing things that I heard, however, was not yet another speaker making wild claims about immigrants or minorities. It was when Michael Steele, the former chair of the Republican National Committee, appeared on "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" on Tuesday evening. In a congenial interview otherwise notable for Steele's refusal to condemn Hillary Clinton, Steele expressed consternation about the candidacy of Donald Trump. More than consternation. Embarrassment.
That was certainly a welcome contrast to what was going on at the convention itself, especially coming as it did from such a high-profile Republican. Steele did drop a bombshell, however. Even after at least tacitly acknowledging all of the amazingly disqualifying things that Trump has said and done so far during this election campaign, Steele said this about Trump:
"His speech on Thursday will tell the tale of whether or not Donald Trump is ready to be President of the United States. Everything he does between now and November will be dictated by how he begins this moment. So that's when the clock starts running for me."There you have it. Hillary Clinton's entire life is fair game for Republicans, but what Donald Trump has said and done for the past year -- which was so bad that it led to angry dissent from hundreds of delegates at the convention, as well as the refusal of the previous three Republican presidential candidates even to attend the convention -- can be wiped away with one evening. If Trump were to give a good speech, Steele suggested, that is all that would matter.
I have no idea what Steele thinks of the speech that Trump ultimately gave in Cleveland, but Trump's time in the spotlight was not a pretty picture. It was, to put it in Steele's framing, a missed opportunity. The money quote, as far as I can tell, was when Trump said (about everything, apparently), "I alone can fix it." Who knows why anyone could have expected anything different, but the reality is that -- even grading on the debased curve defined by his campaign -- Trump did not "begin again."
Steele is not uniquely guilty of this kind of wishful thinking, of course. The many people in his party who have been trying to have it both ways with Trump -- condemning his obvious racism, sexism, and gratuitous provocations, but refusing to say that he has finally gone too far -- have been telling us for months that they have been waiting for a change of "tone" or "style" in the Trump campaign.
Take, for example, Senator Susan Collins of Maine. As much as I want to believe the positive press that Senator Collins has received during her career -- because I truly do want to be able to think that there are still reasonable, centrist Republicans who could guide their party back from the brink -- she continues to fall back on simply indefensible arguments.
On Tuesday during the convention, Collins made news by saying that she might consider voting for Hillary Clinton. That seems like a big deal, and in a way it is. But even there, Collins tried to dodge the real issue with a half-measure: "It is more likely that I would decide to write in a candidate or choose another approach." The only other approaches that I am aware of are voting for a third-party candidate or not voting at all. So, Collins is apparently considering five options: vote Trump, vote Clinton, vote third-party, vote write-in, or do not vote. She has not ruled out any option, as far as she has said.
For people who are truly disgusted by Trump, however, the "but I won't vote for Clinton, either" approach is fundamentally dishonest. Protest votes are a fine American tradition, but for people like Collins who are treating their votes as if they matter to the outcome of the election -- which is, despite the millions of votes cast in elections, the only way to treat one's decision without descending into nihilism -- saying that they will not vote for the only other plausible candidate is really to say that they will not do everything possible to prevent the worst candidate from winning.
Collins (and many other Republicans), after all, have admitted that Clinton is highly qualified to be president. ("She’s an accomplished person who is clearly qualified to be president. I do have a good relationship with her.") Trump is not so qualified, in their view. Yet they are considering a path that could help Trump win.
To use some simple numbers, imagine that there are only 9 voters in an election, five of whom think that Trump is completely awful, and four of whom love Trump. He should lose, five votes to four. But if two of the anti-Trump voters say, "Well, I guess I won't vote for Clinton, either" she loses 4-3. (Whether those two purists vote for write-ins or third-party candidates, or instead choose not to vote at all, the result is the same.)
The Collins-like voters then go to bed saying, "Well, we're now stuck with Trump, but at least I didn't help get him elected." The problem is that they will be deluding themselves. They had the power to help prevent his election, but they did not exercise that power.
The more fundamental worry, however, is that Collins also said this: "We still have a ways to go, and I do believe in redemption." Last month, she also said this to CNN: "I would love to be able to endorse Donald Trump, but he really has to change the approach that he's taken. If I were giving him advice, I would tell him he should own up to making mistakes. ... And he should stop insulting people."
So, having listened to Trump for over a year, as he incited hatred and attacked the judiciary and the media (and anyone else who displeased him), Senator Collins's response is that, well, she hopes he might change his "approach" and maybe stop insulting people?
My father was a Presbyterian minister, so I grew up in a religious tradition that believes in the possibility of redemption. Redemption, however, can save a person from damnation, but it does not qualify him to be president. And since mere mortals never know whether a person has been truly redeemed (the judgment of which is left to a higher power), we are still left with the evidence of a person's deeds on which to judge their fitness for office on earth.
Fortunately for everyone, Trump shows no sign of even trying to redeem himself in the eyes of those whom he dismisses. That means that Steele, Collins, and the others can now say in all honesty: "I gave him every chance. He could have lived up to a higher standard, but he chose not to. I never thought that I would say this, but I will vote for Clinton."
Maybe one or both of them will do just that. The problem is that there is no end to the do-overs that Steele's logic provides. According to him, Phase 1 ended when Trump was officially nominated, and Phase 2 began on Thursday night. But why not later decide that, hey, there is also a Phase 3, which begins the day after the Democratic convention? And if Trump fails that test, then maybe we should invent a Phase 4, because "everyone knows that the general election truly begins after Labor Day." Maybe Phases 5 through infinity begin with every moment up to Election Day.
After all, if we believe in redemption for presidential candidates as a means of washing away all that has gone before, deathbed conversions are as good as anything before then. Maybe we will finally see a generous and inclusive Trump give a speech on TV on November 7, and anxious Republicans will rejoice and say, "See, I just wanted him to change his tone! Now I can vote for him tomorrow with a clear conscience." And that is how willful blindness by good people can change history.