Last night, Donald Trump offered a grudging apology (after earlier offering a non-apology) for lewd remarks in which he seemed to be boasting about routine sexual assault. But he isn’t sorry and everyone knows it. As best one can tell, Trump has never been genuinely sorry for anything. His half-hearted apology to the women of America is worthless, and if he offers another apology it will be equally worthless. The people who ought to apologize — the people who really might be sorry and ought to speak up if they are — are the several hundred Republican Party leaders who saw this disaster unfold over the past twelve months, were clearly somewhat uncomfortable with it, and who chose to convince themselves and their fellow partisans that it was all okay rather than to lean in and fight Trump.
Undeniable candid audio of Donald Trump discussing womanizing in crude, vulgar terms before tipping over the line into boasts about sexual assault is different from what we’ve seen from Trump before in terms of its political impact. But it’s fundamentally consistent with an extremely long track-record of Trumpian mistreatment of women. Before the tape came out, those who cared to know could pay attention to an interview with a woman who says Trump sexually assaulted her, an old account of marital rape, a long track-record of misogynist remarks on Howard Stern’s radio show, reports of a hostile work environment on set at The Apprentice, or the basic pattern of multiple divorces and affairs.
This audio is shocking, not surprising
All that said, anyone genuinely surprised to hear this kind of thing from Trump when you already know that he’d cozied up with Roger Ailes — after Ailes got booted from Fox News for treating the cable network as his own personal non-consensual harem —was clearly practicing a fair degree of self-deception. Trump’s sexist statements about Megyn Kelly and Carly Fiorina were out there for everyone to see, Alicia Machado tried to warn us, and anyone who’s been paying attention should be shocked but not surprised.
Calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional.— Governor Mike Pence (@GovPenceIN) December 8, 2015
Then of course there’s the matter of how Trump treated disadvantaged groups who are less numerous than women. He offered a proposal to ban Muslim immigration that’s so outrageous the man he later picked as his running mate denounced it as offensive and unconstitutional. Trump attacked Ben Carson for being a Seventh Day Adventist, suggested Ted Cruz can’t be a real Evangelical because he’s Cuban, said Mexican immigrants are murderers and rapists, said Mexican-Americans are per se unfit to serve as federal judges, and continued to defend his call for the execution of the Central Park Five even after they’d been exonerated.
Republicans knew Trump was bad and decided they didn’t care
Many Republican Party elected officials gave the impression of being aware that this stuff was bad. Many of them denounced at least some of it in strong terms; most of them distanced themselves from the majority of it. Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie, and a few others went all-in on Trumpism, but most kept their wary distance. But that didn’t stop them from going all-in on the proposition that Donald Trump should be President of the United States.
It’s worth offering some sympathy and understanding on this score.
As a candidate, Trump did a lot of erratic and bizarre things. But he also did some normal things. He signaled pretty clearly that he would sign into law Paul Ryan’s preferred package of tax cuts and rollbacks to the welfare state. He indicated that he would roll back the Obama administration’s regulatory actions on carbon dioxide missions, and offer relief to the banking sector from Obama-era financial regulations. He said he would appoint judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade and advance other key conservative objectives.
We live in an era of highly polarized parties. The governance outcomes of a GOP president versus a Democratic president will be drastically and systematically different. Under the circumstances, it is entirely natural that a committed Republican who sincerely believes in the party’s policy agenda would be sorely tempted to take an optimistic hopeful view of Trump. It’s easy for Democrats to be smug and think that if the shoe were on the other foot they would be in the camp of Senators Mike Lee and Ben Sasse and Jeff Flake, all of whom refused to endorse Trump from the beginning, but the reality is that many of them truly might fail the moral test if they were ever put to it.
Republicans are realizing they are wrong
But what Republican Party leaders — from formal party leaders like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell to lesser elected officials and quasi-party people like the Chamber of Commerce — should be learning this weekend is that they were wrong.
Not that Trump made a mistake and he needs to apologize, but that they made a mistake and need to apologize. The evidence was there, in spades, all along for anyone who wanted to see. But partisan and ideological incentives made them not want to see. The audio is vivid and stark and cuts through that fog of wishful thinking and self-deception. The people whose eyes its opened shouldn’t be demanding apologies from Trump, they should be offering apologies for their role in letting him get much closer to the White House than he ever should have.