There’s an old saying that in politics there are no permanent victories—and no permanent defeats. Barry Goldwater was crushed in 1964 but the ideas that animated his candidacy found new life in the Reagan Revolution of 1980. Bill Clinton declared the era of big government over in 1996 and 14 years later we got ObamaCare.
The inevitable turning of the policy wheel should comfort conservatives unnerved by the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency. Liberals overreach. Statist solutions fail. Voters tire of one-party rule. To govern is to own, and the next president will own the next recession, the next foreign-policy fiasco, the next Veterans Affairs scandal. If Mrs. Clinton is everything Republicans say she is—an opportunistic, dishonest, incompetent left-wing ideologue—they can at least look forward to a one-term presidency. I know I do.
But to say there are no permanent victories or defeats in politics doesn’t mean there is no permanent dishonor. Huey Long, Charles Coughlin, Alger Hiss, Joe McCarthy and Bull Connor are the foul names of America’s 20th century, and always will be. And those who supported and excused them will always be tainted by association.
This is where Republicans now find themselves with their presidential nominee. Of all of Donald Trump’s vile irruptions—about Sen. John McCain’s military record, or reporter Serge Kovaleski’s physical handicap, or Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s judicial fitness—his casual smear of Ghazala Khan is perhaps the vilest.
This isn’t simply because Mrs. Khan is a bereaved mother. Bereavement alone does not place someone above criticism, especially when it comes to political differences. Nor is it because Mrs. Khan’s son, U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan, died heroically to protect his troops in Iraq. The special deference given to Gold Star parents is, at bottom, a social convention.
No: What makes Mr. Trump’s remarks so foul is their undisguised sadism. He took a woman too heartbroken and anxious to speak of her dead son before an audience of millions and painted a target on her. He treated her silence as evidence that she was either a dolt or a stooge. He degraded her. “She was standing there. She had nothing to say,” Mr. Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.”
In this comment there was the full unmasking of Mr. Trump, in case he needed further unmasking. He has, as Humayun’s father Khizr put it, a “black soul.” His problem isn’t a lack of normal propriety but the absence of basic human decency. He is morally unfit for any office, high or low.
This is the point that needs to dawn—and dawn soon—on Republican officeholders who pretend to endorse Mr. Trump while also pretending, via wink-and-nod, that they do not. Paul Ryan has tried to walk this razor’s edge by stressing how much he disagrees with Mr. Trump’s “ideas.” On Sunday the speaker issued a flabby statement extolling the Khan family’s sacrifice and denouncing religious tests for immigrants without mentioning Mr. Trump by name.
Mr. Ryan is doing his personal reputation and his party’s fortunes no favors with these evasions. The central issue in this election isn’t Mr. Trump’s ideas, such as they are. It’s his character, such as it is. The sin, in this case, is the sinner.
It will not do for Republicans to say they denounce Mr. Trump’s personal slanders; his nativism and protectionism and isolationism; his mendacity and meanness and crassness; his disdain for constitutional protections—and still campaign for his election. There is no redemption in saying you went along with it, but only halfway; that with Mr. Trump you maintained technical virginity. To lie down with him is to wake up with him. It’s as simple as that.
That’s a thought that ought to frighten Republicans. The Khan slander was not Mr. Trump’s first and will not be his last or worst. As one wag on Twitter put it, the man always finds a new bottom. Nor are we likely done with new disclosures about Mr. Trump’s business practices and associations. Conservative die-hards may try to hold fast to the excuse that Hillary Clinton was, is, and always will be “worse,” but the argument can’t be sustained indefinitely. Mrs. Clinton is not the apotheosis of evil. She may be a corner-cutter and a liar, and she’ll almost surely appoint liberals to the Supreme Court. But at least she’s not a sociopath.
Politics is mostly the business of maintaining popularity in the here-and-now. Not always. Come January, Mrs. Clinton will likely be president. Whether there is a GOP that can still lay a claim to moral and political respectability is another question. Mr. Ryan and other Go-Along Republicans should treat the Khan episode as their last best hope to preserve political reputations they have worked so hard to build.