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Donald Trump is Republican leaders' fault

Donald Trump Holds Media Availability In New York City Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Barring some freak turn of events, Donald Trump is going to be the Republican Party's nominee for president in 2016. The fact that we're currently talking about Trump possibly being denied the nomination via a contested convention merely shows how likely a Trump win is. Many leaders in the Republican Party and the conservative movement quite rightly find this alarming.

Liberals are, likewise, alarmed.

At the same time, contrary to some of the hotter takes out there these days there's no reason liberals can't take a little guilty pleasure in the discomfiture of the Republican Party leadership. The fact of the matter is that the Trump phenomenon is entirely their fault — the malign consequence of years of willfully reckless misconduct of public affairs followed by months of cowardly dilly-dallying.

Republican leaders made Donald Trump a political star

Top Republican Party leaders are not just responsible for having contributed to the situation in which Trump could thrive; they are directly and literally responsible for Trump's status as a major political figure.

Trump had long been a well-known figure in the worlds of business and entertainment, but he became a political figure almost entirely through a 2011 effort to raise doubts about Obama's country of birth. Republican Party politicians could, at that time, have said, "Yo, that's racist," and made Trump a bipartisan figure of ridicule.

Instead:

When directly asked by David Gregory to repudiate birther conspiracy theories, John Boehner refused to do so while also declining to endorse them. Eric Cantor did the same.

Leaders didn't scold or repudiate the birthers in their ranks because they were actively courting them. At a time when Trump's only known interest in national politics consisted of spreading wild, racially tinged anti-Obama conspiracy theories, Mitt Romney proudly stood beside him on a stage to accept his endorsement in the 2012 primary.

Later, Republicans invited Trump to speak at their 2012 convention.

All of which is just to say that Trump is, in a very literal, very practical, very banal sense, entirely the fault of the Republican Party leadership. They knew in 2011 and 2012 that he wasn't a serious thinker about public policy and didn't have any longstanding commitment to conservative philosophy. But they embraced and promoted him as a political figure not despite his ugly conspiracy-mongering but because of it — doing so at a time when he had no other conceivable connection to Republican Party politics.

Republican leaders vouched for Trump's fitness to serve

Last fall, it was pretty clear that Trump was unsuited to serve as president of the United States. He had no qualifications and no demonstrated interest in public policy. All he had done to expand his political profile was to expand beyond racist attacks on the president's parentage to also include racist attacks on Mexican immigrants.

The response of the formal party leadership in the Republican National Committee was to orchestrate a stunt through which all of the party's candidates for president pledged to support Trump if he won the nomination.

The point of the stunt, of course, was to accomplish the opposite. At the time, Republicans feared that Trump would bolt the party and launch a self-financed bid that could, Nader-style, tilt the election to Democrats even if it drew just 2 or 3 percent of the national vote. So Reince Priebus got every candidate to pledge to support the eventual nominee.

Since the pledge was unenforceable, Trump gave up absolutely nothing.

But he gained a great deal. Prior to a pledge, a person might have coherently thought that Trump was a guy they enjoyed listening to in small doses but was obviously not qualified to be president in terms of either his experience or his engagement with the actual policy issues. But here was a tremendous raft of Republican candidates — former governors of Texas, New York, Florida, and Arkansas, along with the sitting governors of Wisconsin, Ohio, and Louisiana and incumbent senators from Kentucky, Florida, Texas, and South Carolina — vouching for the guy. If he won the nomination, they would back him.

Throughout his rise, Republican leaders have refused to pull the plug

That disastrous pledge occurred way back in September, at a time when almost nobody took the idea of Trump as nominee seriously. But with each passing month he got closer to the nomination, and Republican leaders did nothing to stop him.

Party leaders could have taken any number of opportunities — the time he approvingly cited a fictional war crime, his lavish praise of Vladimir Putin, his vile slurs of Megyn Kelly, his evident lack of knowledge of any policy issue, or his repeated incitements toward violence at his rallies — to simply admit that the pledge had been a mistake. They said they would support Trump, but they had never really meant it at the time and shouldn't have said it, because Trump is clearly unsuitable for the presidency.

But they didn't. Even in the course of a Tuesday night concession speech in which he implicitly lambasted Trump, Marco Rubio hewed to the line of party loyalty. Paul Ryan says he will support Trump if he is the nominee. Mitch McConnell and the entire Senate Republican caucus are holding a Supreme Court seat open for Trump to fill. And Republican strategists are currently advising candidates on how to Trumpify their own campaigns.

Republicans need to choose

For now, the Republican Party establishment isn't giving up on the idea of denying the nomination to Trump.

Nor should they. It's conceivable that Ted Cruz and John Kasich can execute a pincer move to limit Trump to a plurality of delegates, and then the party will select some other nominee at the convention. This strikes me as largely wishful thinking, but it's obviously worth a try.

Still, the real moment of decision is for the Republican elites who aren't currently in the arena. In the course of a long, rambling victory speech on Tuesday night, Trump referred to positive phone calls with McConnell and Ryan and made a call for party unity. The question for Republican leaders is whether they will continue to legitimize Trump in the name of party unity, or do the right thing and disavow him.

The preferred path of least resistance, obviously, is to choose not to choose. To have senators and House members in contested races distance themselves from the unpopular Trump even while the party as a whole mobilizes behind him to keep turnout and morale up. But politics is about making choices, and this is a time for choosing. Despite his anti-establishment credentials, Trump has been boosted and elevated by the Republican establishment every step of the way. If they don't stop that — and soon — they are all complicit in the consequences, no matter how much they quietly dream of a brokered convention to save them.

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