Donald Trump’s sparring with Khzir Khan and the subsequent response from a few notable members of the GOP highlighted a striking split in party ideology that has grown ever deeper since Trump unofficially clinched the Republican nomination earlier this year.
The GOP is, of course, not unaccustomed to division and internal discrepancy; the rift between moderate and radical conservatism has been an increasingly influential component of modern American politics. What makes the rise of Vichy Republicans — those who have thrown their support behind Trump for political expediency — different is not their interpretation of conservative principles, but rather their staunch refusal to acknowledge principles at all.
Khzir and Ghazala Khan occupied only one speaking slot in a Democratic Convention which was packed to the brim with overt and articulate Trump-bashing. Unlike the politicians who presented during the DNC, they had no personal agenda or obligation to fulfill, and unlike the celebrities there they had no preexisting familiarity with their audience. They stood in front of an enormous photograph of their late son, Captain Humayun Khan, who died in 2004 only months into his first tour in Iraq and was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. Speaking on behalf of a Gold Star family, Khzir Khan pronounced Donald Trump to be lacking the empathy and knowledge of sacrifice necessary to lead the United States, offering his own pocket-sized copy of the Constitution to the candidate who he suggested had little understanding of its sentiment.
Trump’s subsequent lack of hesitation to fire back at the Khan family during his interview with George Stephanopoulos this past Sunday did not come as the greatest of shocks. However, it posed a true test for all of his backers. This time, instead of viciously attacking political correctness or entrenched establishment politicians, Trump was aiming his salvos at regular people. And not only regular people, but the grieving parents of a son who had given his life in armed service to the United States. Those who continue to support Trump’s belligerent candidacy can no longer argue that he only attacks those with power.
Of course, it is unlikely that we will see any mass exodus of support from either candidate at this point in the race, barring one of them committing a murder in cold blood. That might be the unfortunate result of closed-minded attitudes and partisan curation within family units. Or perhaps the issue is that the election season is simply far too long for critical assessment to be sustainable.
Regardless, the Republican Party is now divided on yet another issue, and inconveniently it is divided only two weeks after its convention somewhat-convincingly portrayed a united front. John McCain, who has long tussled with Trump over veterans’ issues and his own military record, released a scathing statement distancing himself and the greater party from its presidential nominee’s attacks on the Khans. The party’s legislative leaders, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, made similar statements reaffirming their respect for veterans and their families.
It is with these party figureheads, however, that the problem emerges; not even this transgression, of the most blatantly disrespectful nature, is enough for them to withdraw their “support” for Donald Trump. It was never legitimate support for Trump’s policy proposals or ideologies that led to major endorsements by party leaders, albeit endorsements made through tightly-clenched teeth. It was, to put it bluntly, cowardice, and it is cowardice still that allows Trump to retain the support of a party he doesn’t truly align with. Rebuking the party candidate after he’s been chosen would be unprecedented at this point, a messy and highly-public retooling of tradition. And so, to the surprise of nobody, the Vichy Republicans will continue to do everything to distance themselves from Trump except the only thing that could possibly make a difference.