Once Donald Trump locked up the nomination, Republicans were confident about his next moves. He would tone down his rhetoric and pivot to the centre. "Donald Trump understands that this is not a primary season any more," said Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus. Trump aide Paul Manafort explained that the presumptive nominee would show "more depth" and highlight that he was "evolving". Mr Trump himself promised, "I'm going to be so presidential that you people will be so bored."
So much for getting bored.
On Sunday, the United States suffered its worst terrorist attack since 9/11, a particularly sickening blow because the killer targeted a minority group long subject to discrimination. Mr Trump's reaction was to congratulate himself in a tweet. Over the next two days, he called on President Barack Obama to resign and Mrs Hillary Clinton to drop out of the race, insinuated that the President actually wanted the jihadists to win, repeated his proposed ban on all Muslims entering the country and warned American Muslims that they had better cooperate with the authorities.
One of Mr Trump's leading surrogates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, suggested reviving the House Un-American Activities Committee, infamous for punishing Americans loosely accused of being communists or communist sympathisers. Mr Trump's long-time friend and Republican consultant Roger Stone outlined a new McCarthy-style witch hunt, telling Breitbart news network: "There's going to be a new focus on whether this administration, the administration of Hillary Clinton at (the) State (Department) was permeated at the highest levels by Saudi intelligence and others who are not loyal Americans." He pointed a finger specifically at Ms Huma Abedin, one of Mrs Clinton's closest and most longstanding aides and a Muslim American, saying, "We have to ask: Do we have a Saudi spy in our midst? Do we have a terrorist agent?" There is, of course, zero evidence for this charge.
None of Mr Trump's "policies" are really policy proposals at all but mechanisms solely designed to push people's emotional buttons. The test of a policy for him is not its truth content, intelligence, practicality or cost. Rather, it is: Does this scare, excite, enrage, inflame? He has used the Orlando tragedy to stoke fears about immigrants. Because the killer wasn't actually an immigrant but a Queens-born American, Mr Trump points out that Omar Mateen's father came to the United States in the 1980s (fleeing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). If we are using a time machine to solve international problems, perhaps we should bar Vladimir Lenin from returning to Russia in April 1917, saving the world from communism, and also Adolf Hitler from slipping into Germany (from Austria) in 1913, thus averting World War II.
Orlando has clarified things for anyone who was inexplicably undecided. We know who Donald Trump is. But what is the Republican Party? Most Republican leaders still hold out hope that despite the fact that Mr Trump is, in Mr George Will's accurate description, "the most anti-conservative presidential aspirant in their party's history", he would suddenly get religion and embrace their agenda. They believe that a 70-year-old megalomaniac whose entire life has been devoted to ceaselessly promoting himself and using any means to tear down others would suddenly develop deep empathy for the party, though so far he has used it solely as a vehicle for his own personal ambition.
Watching honourable Republican elected officials such as House Speaker Paul Ryan contort themselves, deploring Mr Trump's rhetoric, distancing themselves from his policies while still promising to vote for the man, is painful. But what of unelected officials who do not even have the excuse that they must be attentive to Republican voters? Several Republican former national security officials and experts have put together a letter announcing that they cannot support Mr Trump. Only three who were Cabinet-level officials, Michael Mukasey, Robert Zoellick and Michael Chertoff, have signed it. Not one former secretary of state, defence or treasury has signed on or publicly announced that he or she will not vote for the man. Where are George Shultz, James Baker, Condoleezza Rice and Hank Paulson? Can their reputations survive their silence?
Not one former secretary of state, defence or treasury has signed on or publicly announced that he or she will not vote for the man. Where are George Shultz, James Baker, Condoleezza Rice and Hank Paulson? Can their reputations survive their silence?
And where is Senator John McCain, who has declared that he supports a man who seems to stand for everything Mr McCain is against - and who callously belittled his war record? Mr McCain has lived a life of service, with acts of courage that are beyond my comprehension. When the North Vietnamese offered to release him in advance of other prisoners of war (because his father was an admiral), he refused, preferring more captivity and torture to losing his honour. Years later, when he learnt that Dr Henry Kissinger had also refused to allow any special treatment for him, he thanked Dr Kissinger for saving "my reputation, my honour, my life, really".
Today, all Mr McCain needs to do to preserve his honour is to say two words: "Never Trump."
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2016, with the headline 'Time for Republicans to say 'Never Trump''. Print Edition | Subscribe
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