Tonight, if Hillary Clinton wins the presidential election as expected, millions of people will celebrate not only the election of America’s first woman president, but the fact that our democracy survived a near-death experience with a racist, misogynistic, dictator-praising liar whose election would have brought a sudden, screeching end to the 240-year American experiment. A decisive Clinton win would bring a satisfying end to our collective nightmare, and cast Donald Trump into political oblivion, doomed to go down in history as the kind of sad, impotent loser he hates.
But before we wrap the 2016 election in Hazmat sheeting and throw it in the dumpster, there is one more important thing to do. No matter who wins tonight, we must not forgive the high-profile Republicans who supported, endorsed, and otherwise enabled Donald Trump to get so close to the Oval Office. Trump’s political enablers—the politicians who will be celebrating tonight if America votes to hand its nuclear codes over to a thin-skinned, anti-democratic sexual harasser—should become permanent pariahs, haunted forever by the ghost of Donald Trump, and never again allowed to reclaim a shred of mainstream respectability.
Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie, Reince Priebus—these names should be forever linked with the decision to support Donald Trump for President of the United States. In the same way the phrase “Former KKK Grand Wizard” is permanently affixed to the front of David Duke’s name, we should spend the rest of our lives reading headlines like “Trump supporter Reince Priebus gives speech at Scranton Kiwanis club,” “Trump endorser Ted Cruz self-publishes Kindle Single on constitutional law,” and “Trump booster Newt Gingrich becomes spokesman for penny stock brokerage.”
Of course, that won’t happen. Even if Clinton wins in a blowout, we’ll soon go back to arguing about Obamacare and the budget deficit, and the acute pain of the election will gradually fade into a dull ache. We’ll forget the depths of the depravity we’ve seen this year—the suggestion that 11 million undocumented immigrants would be rounded up and deported, the openly anti-Semitic campaign ads, the degrading fights with Gold Star families, the racist allegations of voter fraud, the Billy Bush tape that briefly looked like it might cause even Trump’s die-hards to find their consciences. Trump and his family members will be laughingstocks in polite Manhattan society, but his surrogates and supporters will return to lucrative careers in politics, lobbying, and conservative media, having paid barely any price for their role in an attempted sabotage of America.
In 2008 and 2012, nobody faulted national Republicans for supporting John McCain or Mitt Romney, and rightly so—those candidates, while profoundly wrong about many issues, at least attempted to run campaigns that left their supporters with their dignity intact. The same can’t be said of Donald Trump. To support Trump on Election Day was to have spent more than a year willfully overlooking (or, in many cases, actively excusing) a parade of horrific sins, even the least of which should have sent morally upstanding elected Republicans running for the hills.
Pundits like David Frum are already making excuses for Reince Priebus, Paul Ryan, and the rest of the Republican professional class, saying that their “down-ticket responsibilities” precluded them from making a public break with Trump. But party affiliation is not an excuse for playing fast and loose with an aspiring fascist. Unlike the millions of voters who supported Trump because they earnestly believed that his campaign could Make America Great Again, Republican leaders knew exactly how dangerous Trump was, and backed him anyway.
The Trump campaign might officially end tonight, but its harmful effects will last for years. Violence against American Muslims has spiked, immigrants face unprecedented hostility due to Trump’s divisive rhetoric, racial divides have widened, and entire groups of minorities have been made to fear for their personal safety. Children have been taught indelible lessons about hatred and fear (a Southern Poverty Law Center report found that Trump’s campaign had created “an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color” in America’s schools) and the alt-right’s racial and religious animus has been brought out of the fever swamp and into mainstream discourse.
It is not irrational, Jacobin-style vengeance to suggest that the politicians who aided Trump during this election should be made to wear scarlet “T”s for the rest of their lives. A lifetime of shame is the fair price to pay for the cynical calculation they made—that the personal, strategic benefits of helping a manifestly unfit person become President of the United States would outweigh the potential collective costs.
Normal voters—your friends and neighbors with “Hillary for Prison” yard signs—can be forgiven for voting for Trump. Their views were likely shaped in part by partisan media, intensified through hoax-driven social networks, and filtered through permission structures that allowed them to cast votes for Trump with a clean conscience. But the Republican leaders who built those structures—like Ted Cruz, whose spineless, shameful support for Trump in the last days of this election is almost its own punishment—should not get off the hook so easily. They gambled their political reputations on a bad hand, and if they lose, it'll be time to pay up.