Faced with the certainty of a Trump victory at the convention, the establishment dithered endlessly between embracing him and blocking him. It’s carried on doing so at intervals. (It’s fair to concede that Trump didn’t make its choice easier by his own erratic behavior. Surprise! Surprise!) Unless you want to advertise your own impotence, however, you probably shouldn’t adopt its tactic of constantly muttering about how much you disapprove of him just before urging the voters to support him, however quietly. As Napoleon said: “When you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna.” It seemed to be now or never last weekend.
So I suppose the decision was never. If so, then the alternative approach is a very traditional one: a formal endorsement followed by a dignified silence and an undeclared transfer of campaign resources to races down the ticket. It’s hard for the media to make a controversy out of the GOP financing its own candidates. In addition, establishment grandees would be advised to memorize a few useful remarks to shout to the media scrum as they fight their way to the getaway car: “This election is about issues.” Or “I have already made my position crystal clear.” Above all, however, avoid public demonstrations of moral anguish. It’s not a leadership quality, especially when combined with dithering.
Donald Trump — where should I begin? Or end? In 2001, before anyone saw the Donald as a presidential aspirant, I wrote a critique in National Review of his interviews with Howard Stern in which he discussed women in terms I thought ungallant. My attack wasn’t political, even though Trump was then a Democrat, but its message was sternly disapproving. Think Dr. Arnold in Tom Brown’s Schooldays: “Trump, you are a cad and a bounder and there is no place for you in this school.” Those interviews (which were on the record) were not very different from the notorious videotape. They were vulgar, crass, shameless, and silly sexual boasting — the kind of thing (second only to intrusive women sports reporters) that prompts me to avoid locker rooms. Above all, however, they were known about and readily available.
If a hypothetical reasonable man contemplating a run for the presidency were to suddenly recall that he had these interviews in his background, let alone the Access Hollywood videotape, he would stop and think very hard about proceeding with his plan. They would strike him as unexploded bombs in his path. Withdrawal would look the more prudent course. If he nonetheless decided to go ahead, he should take something like the following steps: call a press conference, present the Howard Stern tapes, declare himself appalled by them, announce that since then his family, especially his daughters, had made him a better person, and ask for the public’s forgiveness as he forged a new path of duty.