After a bruising week of blowback for his aggressive response to criticism from the parents of a slain Muslim Army captain, Donald J. Trump has renewed his assault on elected Republicans unwilling to stand behind his tactical blunders.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Mr. Trump praised House Speaker Paul Ryan’s primary opponent and declared that he would not be supporting Mr. Ryan, who endorsed Mr. Trump in early June. “I like Paul,” the G.O.P. nominee explained, “but these are horrible times for our country. We need very strong leadership. We need very, very strong leadership. And I’m just not quite there yet.”
In the same interview, Mr. Trump criticized U.S. Senator John McCain, who spent over twenty years as an officer in the U.S. Navy and is one of Congress’s staunchest advocates for military servicemembers and their families, for his insufficient commitment to veterans. “I haven’t endorsed John McCain,” Mr. Trump declared. “[H]e should have done a much better job for the vets.”
Kelly Ayotte, a Republican senator fighting for her political life in liberal New Hampshire, also received Mr. Trump’s well-wishes. “We don’t need weak people,” he said pointedly. “[And] Kelly Ayotte has given me zero support.”
Putting aside that these are attacks from a major party’s presidential nominee on members of his own party, what makes these political broadsides remarkable is the sheer falsity of their substance. As the reluctant glue holding together the moderate, conservative, and Freedom Caucus wings of the Republican Party, Mr. Ryan has united a bitterly divided, squabbling Republican caucus under his speakership, a feat which few if any other candidates for his position could have managed. As one of the most visible members of the G.O.P.’s elected leadership, he duly endorsed Mr. Trump once he became the presumptive nominee, calling him the only hope for a sensible conservative agenda. “I feel confident [Mr. Trump] would help us turn the ideas in this agenda into laws to help improve people’s lives,” Mr. Ryan wrote in an op-ed for a local Wisconsin newspaper. “That’s why I’ll be voting for him this fall.”
At the time, Mr. Trump was pleased, tweeting his appreciation for the endorsement:
So great to have the endorsement and support of Paul Ryan. We will both be working very hard to Make America Great Again!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 2, 2016
But for the crime of critiquing Mr. Trump’s unseemly attack on the family of Captain Humayun Khan, the young Muslim Army captain who sacrificed his life to stop a suicide bomber, Mr. Ryan, as well as Senators McCain and Ayotte, are now in disfavor. Though all three issued statements rebuking Mr. Trump’s comments and affirming the service and sacrifice of Captain Humayun Khan, none of them retracted their support for Mr. Trump as the Republican candidate for president.
Donald Trump should count himself lucky to command such loyalty from his fellow Republicans. His job is to represent competently the Republican Party and its vision for the nation, and on that account, this week has been a colossal failure. Opining that the Islamic faith of the late Captain Khan’s mother—not her unimaginable grief over the loss of her son—was the reason for her silence on the stage of the Democratic National Convention has no place in the narrative of a national political campaign. Petty swipes like these are a far cry from the principled, humble, and incisive political campaign which would defeat Hillary Clinton and return the Republican Party to the White House.
Until this week, just about the only thing binding elected Republicans to their endorsements of Mr. Trump was their own electoral prospects. A majority of Americans dislike the Republican presidential nominee, but his base of supporters will inflict a harsh punishment upon anyone who fails to toe the party line and back his candidacy. For these reasons, Republicans have been cautiously backing Mr. Trump, emphasizing that he would offer a better chance of success for a conservative agenda than a Democratic president while raising objections to him and his rhetoric when the need arises.
But by calling out his flagging allies for insufficient loyalty, Mr. Trump has marked them for political assassination. Embattled Republican senators across the country, upon whose political survival control of the U.S. Senate depends, can count on their party’s nominee to twist a knife into their candidacies unless they excuse his every misstep, flaw, and failure. If the collapse in national support for Mr. Trump over the past week continues, expect Republicans facing tough reelection fights—and even those who are not—to stand up to him and revoke their endorsements. By doing so, they will win the respect of moderates and anti-Trump conservatives, all while blunting criticism from their Democratic opponents that they have stood with the most unpopular Republican presidential nominee in history.
Elected officials are loathe to oppose their party’s nominee for president. In most elections, doing so alienates the party base and damages both the nominee and the candidate’s fortunes. But if Donald Trump continues to insist upon absolute loyalty from his most vulnerable peers, elected Republicans will repudiate his candidacy in order to save themselves the trouble of having to defend the indefensible.