WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s distinctive rhetorical style — think of a drunk with a bullhorn reading aloud James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” under water — poses an almost insuperable challenge to people whose painful duty is to try to extract clarity from his effusions. For example, last week, during a long stream of semi-consciousness in Fort Worth, this man who as president would nominate members of the federal judiciary vowed to “open up” libel laws to make it easier to sue — to intimidate and punish — people who write “negative” things.
Well. Trump, the thin-skinned tough guy, resembles a campus crybaby who has wandered out of his “safe space.” It is not news that he has neither respect for nor knowledge of the Constitution, and he probably is unaware that he would have to “open up” many Supreme Court First Amendment rulings in order to achieve his aim. His obvious aim is to chill free speech, for the comfort of the political class, of which he is now a gaudy ornament.
But at least Trump has, at last, found one thing to admire from the era of America’s Founding. Unfortunately, but predictably, it is one of the worst things done then — the Sedition Act of 1798. The act made it a crime to “write, print, utter or publish, or cause it to be done, or assist in it, any false, scandalous, and malicious writing against the government of the United States, or either House of Congress, or the President, with intent to defame, or bring either into contempt or disrepute, or to excite against either the hatred of the people.” Now, 215 years after the Sedition Act expired in 1801, Trump vows to use litigiousness to improve the accuracy and decorousness of public discourse.
The night before his promise to make America great again through censorship, Trump, during the Houston debate, said that his sister, a federal judge, “[signed] a certain bill” and that [Supreme Court] Justice Samuel Alito also “signed that bill.” So, the leading Republican candidate, the breadth of whose ignorance is the eighth wonder of the world, actually thinks that judges “sign bills.” Trump is a presidential aspirant who would flunk an eighth-grade civics exam.
More than anything Marco Rubio said about Trump in Houston, it was Rubio’s laughter at Trump that galled the perhaps bogus billionaire. Like all bullies, Trump is a coward, and like all those who feel the need to boast about being strong and tough, he is neither.
Unfortunately, Rubio recognized reality and found his voice 254 days after Trump’s scabrous announcement of his candidacy to rescue America from Mexican rapists. And 222 days after Trump disparaged John McCain’s war service (“I like people that weren’t captured”). And 95 days after Trump said that maybe a protestor at his rally “should have been roughed up.” And 95 days after Trump re-tweeted that 81 percent of white murder victims are killed by blacks. (Eighty-two percent are killed by whites.) And 94 days after Trump said he supports torture “even if it doesn’t work.” And 79 days after Trump said he might have approved the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. And 72 days after Trump proved that he does not know the nuclear triad from the Nutcracker ballet. And 70 days after Trump, having been praised by Vladimir Putin, reciprocated by praising the Russian murderer and dictator. And so on.
Rubio’s epiphany — announcing the obvious with a sense of triumphant discovery — about Trump being a “con man” and a “clown act” is better eight months late than never. If, however, it is too late to rescue Rubio from a Trump nomination, this will be condign punishment for him and the rest of the Republican Party’s coalition of the timid.
“Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,/In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side.” So begins James Russell Lowell’s 1845 poem protesting America’s war with Mexico. The Republicans’ moment is here.
We are about to learn much about Republican officeholders who are now deciding whether to come to terms with Trump, and with the shattering of their party as a vessel of conservatism. Trump’s collaborators, like the remarkably plastic Chris Christie (“I don’t think [Trump’s] temperament is suited for [the presidency]”), will find that nothing will redeem the reputations they will ruin by placing their opportunism in the service of his demagogic cynicism and anti-constitutional authoritarianism.
George F. Will is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.