N.C. Republicans face a Trump test

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Greensboro Coliseum earlier this month.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Greensboro Coliseum earlier this month. AP

In 1964, when the Democratic National Convention was held in Atlantic City, N.J., the Republican Party crashed the Boardwalk coronation of Lyndon Baines Johnson by buying space on a billboard near Convention Hall. It displayed a photo of GOP nominee Barry Goldwater with a message chiding the Democrats who passed below. It said: “In your heart, you know he’s right.”

Fifty-two years later, that Atlantic City message has evolved into a warning to Republicans. Their presumptive nominee, Donald Trump, also had a looming presence in Atlantic City. He ransacked the casinos he owned and stiffed contractors and workers with multiple bankruptcies, as recently documented by The New York Times.

Now the words arising from Trump’s shady Atlantic City dealings – and from his repeated forays into xenophobia and terrorist fear mongering – will confront Republicans who assemble a month from now at their nominating convention in Cleveland. They will convene beneath the message: “In your heart, you know he’s wrong.”

How Republican leaders respond to what they know in their hearts will decide who owns their party’s soul. Or whether it even has one.

Mitt Romney and other leading Republicans are adamant in their opposition to Trump as unfit for the presidency and their party’s nomination. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham endorsed the presumptive GOP nominee and then took it back after Trump raised questions about a federal judge’s Mexican heritage. He said patriotism outweighs partisanship, even if the option to Trump is the election of the Democrats’ presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton.

“There’ll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary,” Graham said.

Jeb Bush posted on Facebook, “Donald Trump has not demonstrated that temperament or strength of character. He has not displayed a respect for the Constitution. And, he is not a consistent conservative. These are all reasons why I cannot support his candidacy.”

But other leaders, such as U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and here in North Carolina, U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tills and Gov. Pat McCrory, have ranged from obsequious to timid to coy as they’ve declared their support for Trump, or, more sheepishly, “the party’s nominee.”

There are many deeply flawed characters who have succeeded in politics, but to succeed as a leader a person must at some point show political courage. What Americans are seeing in the Trump test is a party leadership that is failing to demonstrate the character to do what’s right. Instead, they’re willing to do what they know is wrong and hoping it won’t turn out too badly for the country.

Likely, they think, Trump will lose, and the crisis will pass. Or, if he wins, maybe he’ll change. In any event, don’t look to them to be the hero. But ducking or wishing away the issue ignores the damage already being done and the long-term consequences for the Republican Party. Trump’s campaign has puzzled and alarmed America’s friends in the world and stoked anti-immigrant resentment at home. Republicans should have had the gumption Romney displayed and stopped Trump before he got this far. If they compound that failure with Trump worship in Cleveland, the damage to the Republican brand may be irreversible.

President Obama said last week that Trump’s willingness to seal the nation’s borders to all Muslims violates the American ideal of religious freedom and would strengthen the Islamic State by putting the United States at odds with the world’s Muslims. He asked incredulously, “Where does this stop? Do Republican officials actually agree with this?”

Apparently, in North Carolina, they do. The state’s congressional delegation and state leadership have meekly gone along with Trump and some welcomed him when he visited Greensboro on Tuesday. Burr, the state’s senior senator and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says only that he’ll support the party’s nominee. Rumored to be on Trump’s short list of running mates, Burr hasn’t rejected the role. In the process, he also made an astonishing statement of faith in the flip-flopping, chameleon candidate: “I’ve learned with Donald Trump – take him at his word.”

McCrory has said he’ll support the party’s nominee, and he attended a fundraising dinner for Trump in Greensboro hosted by McCrory’s former Cabinet member, Dr. Aldona Wos.

Republican officials who accept Trump and would assist him in becoming president are, as Graham said, putting their short-term political interests ahead of the best interest of the United States and North Carolina. History will remember how they shirked the burden of leadership.

Peter Steinfels, writing in Commonweal magazine this month, noted, as many have, the parallels between Trump’s rise and 1930s Germany. He writes, “We continue to judge the public figures of that time by the political and moral choices they made regarding a fresh form of venomous politics. Fascisms, often inchoate in early stages, have never come to power without the acquiescence or connivance of elites.”

Trump is a fraud and a menace. Republican leaders of conscience and courage will fight to deny him the nomination and reject him if he is the nominee. There is no other honorable course. For in their hearts, they know he’s wrong.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com