GOP is party adrift without direction

Jules witcover

WASHINGTON — If two-fisted bully Donald Trump were a prize-fighter, he would never be mistaken for any of the great old lords of the ring like Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Gentleman Jim Corbett or Rocky Marciano. They all pretty much kept their mouths shut and let their fists speak for them.

Even Muhammad Ali, who loudly and repeatedly declared himself “the greatest,” exuded a courtesy toward his string of opponents while hammering them into early submission.

His most significant fight outside the ring was with his government, which wanted to send him and fellow African-Americans into a war he believed to be unjust and immoral.

Louis particularly always described each vanquished foe as “best man I ever fought.”

Donald Trump, on the other hand, offers himself as a crude street brawler always in the right, sparing his opponents no indignity he can conceive.

He seems to go out of his way to stir up the worst political and civil instincts of his flock, whether the friction point is race, ethnicity, religion or allegiance, be it in political street demonstrations or sporting events.

His big row last weekend with pro football players who chose to make a visual show of their opposition to police violence against racial minorities offered a bizarre choice of presidential priorities. In the face of another fierce hurricane decimating the American territory of Puerto Rico, and an intensified threat of nuclear war from North Korea, Trump aimed multiple tweets at the NFL in the manner of a schoolyard spat.

At the same time, he continued a useless intramural row with his unhinged Republican Party, itself adrift in confusion between its congressional leadership and Trump’s sudden leap toward bipartisanship with Democratic leaders ready to exploit the GOP’s disarray.

In a single-minded effort to squeeze the last drop of support from the party’s death wish for President Obama’s troubled but still preferred health care law, Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have carried their self-humiliation beyond embarrassment to open ridicule.

Trump still insists Obamacare will be repealed and replaced early next year with one that “really is going to be something excellent.” Meanwhile, he has kicked off a deep tax-cut proposal that has all the hallmarks of ending his early flirtation with his new Democratic leadership pals “Chuck and Nancy” (Schumer and Pelosi), who collaborated with Trump on raising the federal debt limit.

As the shattered Republican camp reels, be it in the White House or on Capitol Hill, national policy remains adrift both at home and abroad in the fumbling hands of a chief executive who has no general road map and indeed no apparent idea where he wants to go.

Does he understand the peril with which he is toying with his brash and hostile language and threats, in a world in which two principal players regularly demonstrate erratic behavior and instability?

Looming over it all is the Justice Department investigation into Russian meddling into the 2016 presidential election, which many voters now hope will somehow present an escape hatch from all the chaos.

Democratic wishful thinkers and other Americans look to presidential impeachment or some other magic wand to make the whole 2017 political nightmare disappear. But it is far from clear that an eventual outcome can undo the folly wrought by the voters last November.

Millions of Americans, including Hillary Clinton with her well-titled tome, “What Happened,” continue to search through the debris of the 2016 election for why an admittedly angry and discontented electorate turned the country over to such an unqualified political neophyte.

More important now than that exercise is whether the two discombobulated parties can somehow extricate themselves from the ditch dug in one of America’s most disastrous presidential campaigns.

The challenge now is to chart some mutual salvation that can put this great country back on course to the destiny its wise founders envisioned 230 years ago, in the clearer and creative thinking of that remarkable era.

The alternative seems to be more of the bare-knuckle street brawling era of Donald Trump that discredits us all, extracting an even higher price in American prestige here and abroad, in the uncertain days ahead.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.